Reviewing a world premiere can be a privilege, albeit a somewhat daunting one. This first production of Beauty and Sadness, a new opera by Elena Langer to an English-language libretto by David Pountney, based on the 1975 novel by no less than Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata, is one of the most significant musical events to take place in Hong Kong in quite some time.
China hasn’t yet gotten much of an outing in western opera. It’s not for lack of material, but the most famous “China opera” nevertheless remains Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot whose relation with the country is tenuous at best. It has only been in this century that operas directly informed by China—and with direct Chinese creative input—have begun to appear on stage with any regularity.
With domestic Hong Kong opera productions leaning almost exclusively to more or less traditional readings of the stalwarts of repertoire, perhaps someone sometimes has to shake things up a bit. This is what the Hong Kong Arts Festival arguably set out to do by having Oper Leipzig bring Calixto Bieito’s unconventional staging of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.
Macau’s 2019 was ushered in by a New Year’s Eve concert headlined by Chinese soprano He Hui who sang selections from Italian composers Puccini, Verdi, Catalani and Cilèa.
Hong Kong had full year of opera performances, from grand opera to chamber opera and recital, in Italian, French, English and even Chinese, augmented by excellent performances in Macau and Shenzhen.
Little-known outside the Philippines, and if this recital is anything to go by, undeservedly so, kundiman is a form of traditional Filipino love song that was developed into art song in the early 20th century, in particular by Filipino composers Francisco Santiago (1889-1947) and Nicanor Abelardo (1893-1934).
Opera plots can often strain credulity; Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, on the other hand, cuts close to the bone. The story—of an American naval officer who woos, marries and deserts a young Japanese girl—matters: it is a tightly-constructed narrative and attempts to reframe it, reposition it in another time or place, can be fraught.