In February 2004, five-year-old Nathania Ong sang the National Day favourite Home, not in front of family at home, but on stage for a Total Defence Day event before a live audience that included late President SR Nathan.
When she was 12, at the Youth Olympic Games closing ceremony in Singapore in 2010, the same girl dazzled a 27,000-strong live audience and viewers around the world as she led the choir in singing Singapore’s national anthem.
If you were in London recently and managed to catch the 2022-2023 season of the musical Les Miserables there, you might not have suspected that the same little girl is now 25 years old and playing the role of Eponine.
Ong, who is based in London, is currently back in Singapore to prepare for her next role – she plays Cinderella in theatre company Pangdemonium’s production of Into The Woods, by American composer Stephen Sondheim.
Speaking to CNA Women in October, Ong told us about her climb to the global stage, which started simply – with a love for the arts.
A CHILDHOOD FILLED WITH MUSIC, ON STAGE AND OFF
Growing up in a household of six, Ong was surrounded by music.
“Singing was always a huge part of my family,” she told CNA Women. “All three of my sisters and I loved to sing, and that love came from our dad.”
Her father, Dr Kevin Ong, a dentist, would sing recreationally and in church, and he encouraged his daughters to perform at school or with him in church.
Even the car was a stage for the Ong family.
“There was one time the six of us were in a car and five different songs were playing at the same time,” Ong recalled. “All of us were belting our hearts out and somehow, it was chaotic but it just worked wonderfully.”
For Ong, whether it be a painting, film, concert, piece of literature or musical, the arts have a special way of bringing people together and encouraging them to think and feel more deeply.
“When I’m with my friends, what gets us most excited is when we discuss a piece of art that we just saw, like a film we caught on Netflix or a song that we relate to,” she said. “Art connects our shared human experiences, and I find that to be so beautiful.”
But performing went beyond being a mere hobby for Ong.
“I didn’t want to just sing or perform for fun or because it was my co-curricular activity,” she said. “I wanted to excel in it, so I was driven to learn how to do it professionally and for others to appreciate what I do too.”
In 2017, after completing her A Levels at Anglo-Chinese Junior College, where she was part of the school’s Drama Elective Programme, Ong was determined to specialise in theatre.
In 2018, a year into her studies, Ong summoned the courage to apply to drama schools in the UK again.
This time, with an expanded portfolio from her time at LASALLE, she was accepted as a musical theatre undergraduate at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London.
The course was exactly what Ong hoped for – a combination of her dual loves of singing and acting.
“I was so glad,” Ong said. “But to make it work, I had to juggle three part-time jobs – in retail and as a tutor – in Singapore so I could save up for the enrolment fees and living expenses in London.”
She told herself: “All will be worth it.” And ploughed on.
Auditions were initially a nerve-racking experience. “But I got used to it as part and parcel of my career in theatre,” she said. “Auditions move very fast so I must focus on making a lasting impression as my character.”
While still at Mountview in 2021, she clinched her debut role after three rounds of auditions. She played Jenna Roland, a teenage gossipmonger in Be More Chill, a high-school musical showing at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London.
She added: “I always make sure that I audition the same way for any role, no matter how big or small. I do extensive research about the characters and the dynamics they have with other characters, and I tell myself to give it my all.”
In mid-2022, a year after she had graduated from Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts and while playing Eponine on Les Miserables’ UK-Ireland tour, she received a call many theatre actresses dream of.
She was asked to move from the UK-Ireland tour to play Eponine in London’s West End, where Les Miserables is the longest-running theatre production.