In Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s 1733 comic opera La Serva Padrona (“The Maid Made Mistress”), a maid sets her sights on her boss, and through a combination of flirtatious behavior and well-meant duplicity, convinces him that he has really loved her all along. The work is small and intimate with a deceptive simplicity that belies the sophistication of the music, allowing a fusion between comic theatre and comic opera.
It is also, of course, a story that has played out in many times and many places—it is not unknown even here in Hong Kong.
Loosely adapted from the program notes and website for Waitress on Top, performed on 29 October 2019 for the Italian Cultural Institute as part of the Italia Mia festival.
Those who are aficionados already know that opera isn’t inaccessible, intimidating or boring but it can nevertheless seem that way to those who consider it elitist. The objective of this production was to show opera as popular entertainment.
We took taken the music—the sly, wry and perky arias and duets—and set the story in an Italian restaurant … in Hong Kong, but it could be anywhere. Uberto is the very uptight Italian maitre d’, while Serpina (the “serva” of the original) is the not-very-conscientious local young woman he’s hired as waitress and who causes him no end of trouble. Vespone (the non-speaking, non-singing manservant of the original) is a busboy who may or may not have other things going on. The pianist is, well, the restaurant’s in-house entertainment. Selected members of the audience sit on stage to fill in as restaurant guests. Subtitles are integrated into a projected backdrop.
La Serva Padrona is a short work—it was originally meant to be performed as light entertainment in-between the acts of a much longer serious work. (In Italian, it is even referred to as an intermezzo, or intermission.) Those who pay attention to such things will notice that the work draws on the stock characters and situations of Italian commedia dell’arte, a similarly timeless art form that influenced theatrical comedy all over the Western world.
Although very little of the original text need be changed to support the restaurant setting, the original recitatives were replaced with spoken dialogue which offered additional dramatic flexibility. And we also added some additional arias from Gaetano Donizetti’s famous comic opera Don Pasquale, notably “Quel guardo il cavaliere” and “Bella siccome un angelo“. The result is not quite a pastiche, since the story and words remain unchanged, but is nevertheless a new work: a light operetta which serves as an introduction to some great music.
The production of just over an hour featured soprano Etta Fung as Serpina, Oscar Droscha as Uberto and Wei-en Hsu on the piano; music director Marco Iannelli doubled up as Vespone. Waitress on Top was a presentation of the Italian Cultural Institute as part of the Italia Mia festival.