CHC member Dr Kevin Ong shares his journey with his daughter Nathania, one that has taken her from being a precocious and gifted 5-year-old to the first Singaporean to play Éponine in Les Misérables on the West End in London.
City Harvest Church members may recall the 2016 father-daughter duet on Father’s Day for the rousing rendition of Andrea Bocelli’s “The Prayer”. Gracing the stage was then 17-year-old Nathania Ong and her father Dr Kevin Ong, a dentist by trade.
Six years on, Nathania, now 24, takes on a different stage—that of the Sondheim Theatre on the West End, London’s famed theatre district.
In the winter of 2021, she embarked as a cast member of the UK and Ireland tour of Les Misérables, taking on the meaty role of Éponine, a role that has been taken on by predecessors such as Lea Salonga, Disney legend and “pride of the Philippines”. Big shoes to fill indeed, but judging from the soaring reviews, Nathania has done Singapore proud.
Dr Ong, himself a singer and performer in his early years, tells us that Nathania’s inaugural performance happened at the tender age of 5. With one of her sisters, she sang Dick Lee’s classic anthem “Home” before the President, in celebration of Singapore’s Total Defence Day.
This would be the first of many performance to come that showcased her incredible gift of singing. How the 5-year-old caught such a break “was all God, not me,” Dr Ong emphasised.
It was during an informal gathering of Dr Ong’s friends at his home to practise some songs for a Christmas concert they were performing. Unbeknownst to her parents, precocious little Nathania had picked up and memorised her older sister’s graduation song, “Lord I Come to You”.
The proud father recalls, “So little Natty comes out and said she wanted to sing. She stood there and sang: verse chorus verse chorus, repeat chorus. And everyone clapped. But Babes Conde—a vocal coach whose long list of credits include Singapore Idol—had a funny look on her face. She turned to the piano, played a note, which Natty followed, and everyone gasped. Natty was spot on key—she has what they call perfect relative pitch.”
So it was God-led “serendipity” that led to Nathania to be subsequently offered the opportunity to sing in front of the late President SR Nathan.
After that performance, however, God told Dr Ong to halt further exposure. “No vocal lessons,” he relates. “’Just let Natty enjoy singing.’”
Look up “Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Nathania Ong” on YouTube and you’ll find an audio recording of Nathania singing in her “pure, unadulterated, untrained voice,” Dr Ong says. “She had no technique at that point, but you can hear the quality of her voice.”
It was only when she was about 11 did Nathania start to attend singing lessons, which Dr Ong faithfully sat through. This was where his background as a singer himself afforded him the opportunity to guide his daughter during singing practices at home.
“She used to hate working on songs with me because I am so incredibly meticulous and fussy. One verse could take us an hour to work on—and not just line by line, or even word by word, but within each word,” he recalls.
One thing he told his daughter then remains with him: “While you may not remember all of what we practiced, even if you retain just 80 percent, you will sound better than the person who has not done it.”
He admits to being a “tiger dad”. In fact, both father and daughter were born in the year of the Tiger. He shows us a photo of the “two tigers in his life”— Nathania with a toy tiger that he was given when he was born.
It is apparent that Dr Ong’s incredible attention to detail has heavily influenced Nathania’s present approach to her craft. “Even one year on, the novel (Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables) still sits on her dressing table, and she still goes back to read it to draw new insights on Éponine.”
FINDING HER WAY THROUGH THE VALLEY
One would have assumed that Nathania would become a singer for sure, but hers was not such a straightforward path. Her father shares, “God put her through a desert for almost five years during which she did not perform at all—and Natty loves performing. But it was something that God had to bring her through.”
In 2013, she released her debut pop album Unshakeable. “One of the songs ‘Perfect’ was birthed out of this dry spell, “Dr Ong reveals. “God spoke to her: ‘If you allow Me to, I can make you perfect.”
After her ‘O’ levels, Nathania entered the Drama Elective Programme in junior college, where a love for acting blossomed. Subsequently, in a valiant attempt to pursue acting, Natty applied for numerous acting programmes in the UK, flying to the UK alone and spending two months sleeping on couches as she attended multiple auditions for various acting academies. She faced numerous rejections.
“While that wasn’t the right move, that told me how much she wanted it,” Dr Ong says. Meanwhile, Nathania had given up her dream. She returned to Singapore and later, enrolled into LASALLE College of the Arts to pursue a Bachelor in Acting.
A conversation with her best friend, who pointedly told her to focus on her strengths caused Nathania to pivot towards musical theatre rather than acting.
She decided to apply for a place in Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, one of the UK’s most prestigious drama schools. Mountview is notoriously difficult to get into: each year, 2,500 applicants vie for 38 spots in the programme.
By a stroke of divine appointment, one of her teachers at LASALLE previously taught at Mountview. Under his guidance, Nathania learnt and prepared for her audition.
“As Singaporeans, she had absolutely no idea about the auditioning process,” Dr Ong says, illustrating his point with the fact that during the second round of auditions, Nathania was the only one to show up in a T-shirt and yoga pants amid a sea of leotards.
After graduating from Mountview last year, Nathania made her theatrical debut in the role of Jenna Rolan in the musical Be More Chill. “While it seemed that Natty had gotten this role easily—she started rehearsals for it even before graduation—she had gone through 16 different production auditions before that,” he says.
City Harvest members Tony Leong and Zhang Ting Ting were in London recently and caught Les Misérables. Tony says, “Nathania’s part was so touching—both of us teared. I feel very proud to know that she is from Singapore and that she’s a fellow City Harvest Church member! Her part was difficult to pull off because there are a lot of emotions to portray. I think it is not easy as an Asian to be part of such a big musical.”
RAISING A STAR GOD’S WAY
Over the years, Dr Ong has fielded many questions, mostly about how he could be “so liberal” to support Nathania as she pursued such a non-traditional path. It is something many Singapore parents would not have supported.
“In some ways, I had no choice because I recognised that this was God’s plan for her life,” he says, explaining that the Lord’s hand has always been on Nathania, guiding her development. This includes the fact she was conceived and born in England during the years he and his wife lived there—this was heaven-sent as it has allowed her to perform in London without a visa or work permit.
It takes a certain mindset to raise a child like Nathania. Dr Ong points out, “Just as God loves us with an open hand, we need to love our kids with an open hand as well. And also, as parents, we pray. Like crazy. I try every day to pray the prayer of Jabez over my kids, that their territories be enlarged, which is to increase their influence.”
He adds, “I am grateful that there is a fulfilment of this prayer that I have been praying all these years. A few weeks ago I was looking at my daughters and realising that each of my daughters have such an expanding influence where they are. God’s favour on them, God’s hand on them—I am seeing that now on each of them. You look at Natty now and you see this incredible success and she has gone further than any Singaporean has ever gone in theatre. But what you don’t see is all the heartaches and struggles over the years.”
It may well be that Dr Ong is fully supportive of Nathania’s pursuits because he too was once on the path to stardom. When asked, he shares that he represented Singapore in an international singing competition, was signed by Warner Music for three years, and also presented a quiz show on Singapore television.
“One day, I was chatting to God on the sofa and I asked Him, ‘Why did you give me all these opportunities to sing and record, when I’m using nothing of that now? And I do understand, God, that You do nothing for no purpose.’ And God said to me, ‘All those opportunities that I gave to you was never about making you famous. You have a different calling on your life. It was to train you, so that you could train Natty.’”
He adds, “If this is part of God’s plan, then these are not coincidences. God had planned things one generation before her. It would be 15, 20 years before she was born that God was preparing me for her.”
The role of a father is one Dr Ong takes seriously. “As a father you have massive responsibility for your daughters’ future,” he states. “What you say can make or break your daughter. Up to today, when I meet my daughters, I will tell them ‘I just want you to know you are amazing, your daddy thinks you are amazing.’ That is something all daughters need to hear. They are still going to make mistakes and you cannot help that. You just need to be there for them when they need you.”
Armed with such intimate details of this journey that Dr Ong has taken with Nathania, that performance father and daughter did of “The Prayer” an apt and beautiful testament to the profound goodness of God.