Credit: Phyllicia Wang

It’s impossible to leave a Sing’Theatre performance without a smile on one’s face. Whether it’s the gutwrenching tale of ’30s French chanteuse Edith Piaf’s tragic life, or the realities of ageing in Forever Young, each musical is imbued with plenty of heart and soul. It’s a pleasure to see the likes of Hossan Leong and Robin Goh belt out iconic French tunes from the likes of Charles Aznavour and Jacques Brel, peppered with a dash of Singaporean humour.

It’s telling of the talents of Nathalie Durot Ribette, theatre director, producer, and founder of Sing’Theatre, who is able to handle weighty topics such as death and loss with wit, humour and liveliness – not too shabby for someone who had no prior experience in the performing arts. Born in Paris and growing up as the daughter of a divorcee and single mum, Nathalie had the importance of having a job and being financially independent drilled into her as a child. So when the then 33-year old moved to Singapore in 1996 with her husband – and having left her marketing job at Siemens Medical to care for their sickly twin sons – Nathalie felt unfulfilled. Spending days and nights at the hospital with her children didn’t help either.

Photography: Phyllicia Wang, Art Direction: Adeline Eng, Hair & Makeup: Benedict Choo

But through the dark days came a sliver of light – she saw an open call for Starmania, one of France’s first-ever musicals, that cultural organisation Alliance Francaise was staging, and on a whim, decided to audition.

“Maybe I was lucky that day and there were not many good people auditioning, but I was chosen,” says the mother-ofthree with a self-deprecating laugh. “And that was how my journey began. I fell in love with this world. Not so much being on stage, because I have huge stage fright, but I [loved] the ambience, the team spirit, and the friendships that exist till today.”

Nathalie decided to keep performing; she took acting classes, and joined theatre companies The Stage Club and Wild Rice. She even directed an amateur version of Notre Dame de Paris for the Alliance Francaise in 2002.

It was during a tour with Wild Rice that veteran actress Selena Tan – of Dim Sum Dollies fame – asked Nathalie: “Why don’t you create a show about Edith Piaf?”

I fell in love with this world. Not so much being on stage, but the ambience, team spirit, and friendships.

The idea germinated in her mind for a few years, and Nathalie finally decided to take the plunge. The Alliance Francaise agreed to produce it, but this time, Nathalie ensured that the production was professionally staged with paid actors. No Regrets, A Tribute to Edith Piaf was released in 2004.

It was hard to sell tickets in the beginning. She says: “Because the French people were like, ‘Excuse me, this is being sung by a Singaporean, and in English no less, are you serious?’ And the Singaporeans at that time didn’t really know much about Edith Piaf.”

However, the premiere night was such a success that, through word of mouth, the show was completely sold out for subsequent performances. In 2006, Nathalie would officially set up Sing’Theatre.

Stills from the April 2022 production of Quasimodo, directed by Nathalie and featuring George Chan, Hossan Leong, Vanessa Kee and more.

Finding her purpose

Despite the success of No Regrets, Nathalie felt overwhelmed, convinced that her professional directorial debut had been a fluke, because she had not been trained in theatre before.

The 59-year-old recalls: “I had imposter syndrome. I felt like I would not be able to do it again… It took me years before I was able to say, oh, maybe it’s part of me, it’s part of what I’ve done, and maybe I am talented. But I don’t think I’ve yet learnt how to overcome this imposter syndrome!”

Nathalie received multiple requests to direct another musical, but she was not ready to venture into another directorial role. Instead, she focused on producing corporate and school shows. That is, until the death of stage actress Emma Yong, who had been diagnosed with stomach cancer and passed away at the age of 36 in 2012.

Stills from the April 2022 production of Quasimodo, directed by Nathalie and featuring George Chan, Hossan Leong, Vanessa Kee and more.

Nathalie was devastated. “Emma was really my main inspiration. She had been in all my shows, and she was very supportive. So when she passed away, I didn’t feel like I wanted to keep going on. I just completely lost the sense of what I was doing.”

That’s when it hit her: She would produce an event that would not have existed had Emma still been alive. She decided to bring music to the hospitals.

“The first [Musicfest @ SGH (Singapore General Hospital)] was hugely successful. The artists were very moved to be able to sing for the patients at Singhealth, and it was a very unique experience. It’s probably the thing that I am most proud of, because from this very sad story came something amazing,” she says.

The first Musicfest @ SGH festival started in 2013, and monthly programmes have been developed at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and National University Hospital since – more than 100 performers, including singers, musicians, and musical theatre practitioners, go from room to room, spreading the joy of music and bringing a smile to the patients. At the end of 2019, Sing’Theatre launched 365 Days of Music @ Singhealth, where performers would do one hour of live music every day at 10 Singhealth institutions.

Stills from the April 2022 production of Quasimodo, directed by Nathalie and featuring George Chan, Hossan Leong, Vanessa Kee and more.

From France to Singapore

Sing’Theatre had been established with the ambition to “promote and pay tribute to French culture in Singapore by using Singapore actors speaking in English”. For the first 10 years, Nathalie stuck to her vision, using Sing’Theatre’s platform to introduce Singaporeans to the likes of Jacques Brel and Moliere, and bring a touch of home for the French expats living here.

For her contributions, Nathalie was awarded the Knight in the Order of Arts and Literature by the French Minister of Culture and Communication, Frederic Mitterrand in 2010.

But eventually, it became apparent that the single-minded vision of the company was not sustainable. It was becoming harder to find sponsors, and Nathalie realised that it was time to pivot. A crucial turning point was the staging of Jacques Brel is Alive, a revue of the Belgian singer and actor’s discography, in 2016.

“Artistically, it was the best show I’ve done,” she muses, “But we lost a lot of money. That’s when we decided we had to drop the French element. It was very emotional and difficult for me.”

Photography: Phyllicia Wang, Art Direction: Adeline Eng, Hair & Makeup: Benedict Choo

In the meantime, Nathalie had already started Sing’Theatre Academy, which hosts acting lessons for aspiring thespians of all ages, so its mission became quite clear: to continue promoting multicultural dialogues via the musicals it stages; to make music accessible to all layers of society, via the community outreach programmes with the hospitals; and to train the next generation of talents.

In July this year, Sing’Theatre launched the first Asian Musical Theatre Fringe Fest, where young talents were given the opportunity to stage revues at multiple locations across Singapore.

“Our festival director, TJ Taylor, came up with this idea to help the musical theatre community to grow in Singapore, and to give them chance to showcase their talents,” says Nathalie. “The feedback was great,” she says, adding that they’re planning another one in two years, as it’s a costly endeavour. The inaugural edition cost the company about $50,000, and Nathalie hopes to find sponsors for the next one.

I had never studied theatre, and at the age of 35, I was able to start from scratch. Singapore had its trust in me. So now, I want to give back.

Still, for Nathalie, this is a way to give back to the country that’s given her so much: “When I started theatre in Singapore, it really changed my life. I am so thankful, and I thank Singapore for giving me a chance to do this – I had never studied theatre, never done this before, and at the age of 35, I was able to start from scratch. Singapore had its trust in me. So now, I want to give back to society.”

Her most recent launch was A Singaporean in Paris, which was staged for the third time from Nov 2 to 13. The 2010 and 2014 versions were both sell-out successes. Directed by and starring Hossan Leong – Nathalie’s friend and a long-time Sing’Theatre collaborator – this year’s version came\ laden with heavy emotion, given that many families were torn apart for two years during the pandemic.

She knows the feeling of being away from home very well, as she’s been in Singapore for more than 20 years. The pandemic was not easy on her, as she was unable to see one of her sons who lives in France. Two of her children, her son and daughter, have left Singapore, while one of her twins has settled here.

Still, this country is now where she calls home. And for now, she has one more very important reason to stay: She’s about to become a grandmother, placing her in the biggest role of her life.