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Will the Greater Bay Area initiative boost Hong Kong’s opera sector?

The following article was originally published on CHINA NOW, the British Council’s new platform for UK arts professionals. For arts stories, news, events, research and opportunities in China and Hong Kong, sign up here.

When Opera Hong Kong staged Carmen in May as part of the 2018 Le French May festival, the Hong Kong opera company recorded its second consecutive sell-out, following Aida last year.

The production was commissioned for Opera Hong Kong — designed and implemented by Jean-Romain Vesperini and Bruno de Lavenère, the minimalist set was a hit — and the Asian Review of Books noted that while ‘the company has, for obvious financial and artistic reasons, tended to engage in co-productions shared with other leading companies, being able to eschew these for complete creative control is a sign of both development and creative confidence’.

Opera Hong Kong celebrates its 15th season in 2018, and new chairman KL Wong is focused on growing the city’s western opera culture. Wong is paying particular attention on growing long-term audiences and talent, through an education and outreach programme and the Jockey Club Opera Hong Kong Young Artist Development Programme, a three-year programme funded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust that began in 2015.

‘We have a three-prong strategy: the first is to enhance even further the quality of our opera productions,’ Wong said. ‘Raising money is not easy but we must break this bottleneck. The last two operas that we presented were completely sold out so we need to make sure our productions achieve the same quality we achieved in Aida and Carmen. The second prong is education and outreach — opening our own music centre where we train students and our children’s chorus, our student ticketing campaign — we are here for the long term so we need to focus on young people.’

The third prong is the young artist programme, which comprises 10 students. In addition to receiving coaching and training, the young artists serve as ‘ambassadors’ for western opera culture in Hong Kong and, increasingly, in mainland China, particularly in the Greater Bay Area region.

‘All three of these link together,’ said Wong. ‘You can’t produce wonderful opera and in 20 years have no one to watch it.’

A Hong Kong stage

Western opera came to Hong Kong in 1964 when Lo King-man staged performances of NormaLa BohèmeCavalleria Rusticana and Aida at Hong Kong City Hall, accompanied by pianists and a chorus. Lo worked at the Opera of Rome and the Morlacchi Theatre of Perugia in the 1960s before returning to Hong Kong where he was the director of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) from 1993-2004. In 2008, he helped create Musica Viva where he is the artistic and executive director. Today, Musica Viva produces one full production and two smaller productions a year, including one aimed at local students (this year was Maria Stuarda). Musica Viva, which is primarily funded through the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, generally stages its productions either at the Hong Kong City Hall or at the Sheung Wan Civic Centre.

Lo, who has more than 200 productions under his belt, has a focus on local productions. ‘We always have locally based production — we want things to happen in Hong Kong for Hong Kong. We want to develop local singers, local designers and local stagecraft and technical professional personnel.’

In 2003, Opera Hong Kong was set-up with Hong Kong tenor Warren Mok as its artistic director. Over the past decade and a half, Opera Hong Kong has staged a number of productions including The Barber of Seville, Otello, Tosca, La Traviata, Turandot, Carmen, The Marriage of Figaro, Roméo et Juliette, Aïda, Werther, Don Carlo, The Magic Flute, Poet Li Bai, Manon and La Bohème. Opera Hong Kong produces a minimum of four productions a year and often features overseas principals who are making their Hong Kong, China or Asia debuts. These productions are held alongside concerts, including monthly recitals by the young artists.

Although the more familiar works remain the staples of Opera Hong Kong’s calendar, it was Mok who suggested a few years ago that the Asia Society Hong Kong Center might be interested in commissioning a chamber opera as part of its programming. The world premiere of Mila, a chamber opera about a domestic worker in Hong Kong and the family she works for, took place earlier this year.

‘We liked the idea [of a chamber opera] because the idea was to do something that could travel other Asia Society centres that have an opera audience,’ said S. Alice Mong, Executive Director of the Asia Society Hong Kong Center. ‘We thought the idea and the format of the chamber opera combined with the talent we have in Asia was something digestible and that we could pull it off.’

While Mila was a risk — both artistically and financially — it was one that paid off, with the chamber opera generating a positive response in Hong Kong. Mong is continuing to look for opportunities to bring Mila to other cities, while the opera’s success has her open to the possibility of doing more chamber opera.

‘We have a wonderful venue… we have the hardware and we want to use this place to inspire artists from all over,’ Mong said. ‘We want to use our space to continue to work with artists who can come up with something original. I think Mila was a result of that. We would like to collaborate with other institutions in Hong Kong, Asia or outside of Asia and bring talent here to do something original.’

It has been an interesting year for chamber opera in Hong Kong, with the premiere of Mila but also Ghost Love, a Putonghua-language chamber opera that was written locally and based on the 1939 novella of the same name by writer Xu Xu. Hong Kong’s Louise Kwong sang the role of the ‘ghost’,  and as one of Hong Kong’s most accomplished opera artists, Kwong is part of Opera di Roma’s young artist program and won the best soprano prize in 2012 at the Ferruccio Tagliavini International Singing Competition.

Kwong, who earned a Bachelor of Music at the Chinese University of Hong Kong before studying at the Royal College of Music in London and the Conservatory of Amsterdam, most recently performed the role of Mimì in La Bohème in Rome.

‘Stage experience is important for every singer because we can only grow on stage but not in practice room,’ said Kwong, who will perform as Micaëla in Carmen at Rome’s Caracalla this summer. ‘The opportunities given by the Theatre of Rome are very precious [to] me as an Asian singer.’

Of house and home

One of the major challenges for arts organisations in Hong Kong is the booking of venues. Hong Kong does not have a Western opera house, with productions from Opera Hong Kong staged at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre as well at City Hall.

Calling the need for a Western opera house ‘essential’, Wong is hoping that the West Kowloon Cultural District’s Chinese opera venue will be open and available for western opera performances.

‘I hope that it will be suitable for western opera productions,’ Wong said. ‘We have the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, and then for two of our productions we have to do them at City Hall because we cannot book the Cultural Centre. The most practical thing is to build a multi-purpose theatre or concert hall that can stage opera as well as other classical performances — that would be a practical way of doing it.’

Wong is hopeful too that the increased emphasis on the Greater Bay Area will bring forward opportunities.

‘As the Greater Bay Area gets into full swing, there’s the possibility of inter-city opera,’ Wong said. ‘Using high-speed rail it will really be quite easy for mainland Chinese opera goers to come to Hong Kong and vice versa. We can go to the Guangzhou Opera House to perform and easily take high-speed rail, for example.’

The next act

Collaborations with other cities in the Greater Bay Area are already happening. Wong pointed to the recent Opera Carnival in Shenzhen, which featured Opera Hong Kong’s young artists. Officials in Shenzhen saw one of the young artist programme concerts and got in touch with Opera Hong Kong about replicating the concert in Shenzhen.

‘We’re open to any city, but the Bay Area simply because it’s an area of focus for the Hong Kong government, and we can partner in different forms depending on what the city has,’ Wong said. ‘We look forward to working with interested parties who share our vision and who can make use of our capabilities and track record.’

Mong is also keen to explore collaborations from both local, Asian and overseas groups. Funding — for all three groups — remains an important consideration, but Mong said the center was open to taking risks.

‘We [the Asia Society Hong Kong Center] do not have an endowment so whatever project we do, we have to have some sort of funding,’ Mong said. ‘If you have something unique with an interesting Asia angle, whether it’s a singer, an artist — if there’s an angle that’s uniquely Asia then they should talk to us. We have a wonderful membership base and our members encourage us to take certain risks so if there’s a project that’s really unique and we think that our members might like it then we can maybe work together.’

The appetite and the audience for western opera in Hong Kong is steadily growing and many feel that there are opportunities to do more.

‘In terms of audience development, I think Hong Kong has a strong audience of about 3,000 people and then there are the peripheral audiences — people who admire a particular or a well-known work,’ Musica Viva’s Lo said. ‘I think audience numbers have grown, slowly, but they’re growing.’

For opera singers, the challenges are both funding and opportunities. In a South China Morning Post interview, Kwong was quoted as saying that the government subsidies for vocal arts ‘looked imbalanced’ when compared to the annual funding that three professional orchestras received.

‘[The interviewer] and I compared the figures that our government spent on sponsoring professional orchestras and opera companies,’ Kwong said. ‘The we got the assumption of lack of funding for vocal artists. Besides the [assumed] lack of funding, I think the challenges of opera singers in Hong Kong would be the lack of stage experience. Since we only have two opera companies and around 5 opera productions every year, not every one of us [has] the chance to be engaged in productions. Some of our local singers only have one or two [opportunities] for opera stage experience a year, which is far from enough.’

As part of his mission to grow opera culture in Hong Kong, Wong is also out raising funds. Saying that ‘money is always an issue’, Wong said he felt that opera could do much for Hong Kong — his job was to ‘pitch that this is important to Hong Kong.’

In a 2015 op-ed published in the South China Morning Post, Mok, Opera Hong Kong’s artistic director, wrote that ‘opera in Hong Kong is integrated with the world… This integration points to opera’s real value for Hong Kong. The city’s very special place as the only international city in China allows opera to flourish, enhances opportunities for local arts graduates and, ultimately, allows us to act as a cultural bridge between China and the rest of the world.’

Wong agrees. ‘We have a world-class city and we must have world-class cultural offerings.’

About the article

The article is written by Melanie Ho and graphics illustrated by Stephen Case.

Banner photo by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash.