Why do people still sit spellbound through works of musical theatre that are dozens of decades old, written in and about times that have long passed from living memory? There is of course the music and the wonder of the unamplified voice, but opera is also, critically, about the story. There is love, passion, betrayal, pathos, death, hope. There is tension combined with, frequently, impossible choices. Our heroines are asked to choose between their families and their hearts, between a duty to country and a duty to themselves. Opera often poses universal questions—universal because there are no answers—and in that universalità there is unity.
Whether the casts for this week’s Aida are the best ever assembled for opera in Hong Kong—they have some competition from Hong Kong Arts Festival productions, including a Simon Boccanegra with Roberto Frontali, Michele Pertusi, Giorgio Berrugi and Erika Grimaldi, and a Traviata with Carmen Giannattasio and José Bros—is the sort of thing opera-goers love to debate. But these others have been traveling productions from overseas operas rather than something developed and produced by a local company.
When one transports an opera set in 13th-century Florence to early 20th-century Shanghai, as Opera Hong Kong did for the comic opera half of this weekend’s double bill of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, one can expect some textual inconsistencies. Puccini’s only outing in opera buffa tells a story hinted at in Dante’s Inferno: of an out-of-towner who tricks a wealthy family out their inheritance by will-tampering. The story might have come from the pages of the South China Morning Post, so audiences on the whole seem willing to overlook the references to Tuscany. The setting allowed for a number of (quite funny) culturally-specific sight gags.
The reportedly increasing average age of opera audiences—or the flip-side of a purported lack of appeal to new and younger audiences—is a cause of ongoing angst among opera circles the world over. Regardless of whether the reports of opera’s death may in fact be exaggerated, it is encouraging when someone deliberately sets out to do something about it.
Opera Hong Kong’s recent run of Gioacchino Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia was notable for an unusual production which frothily updated the action with a 1930s classical movie musical vibe—complete with the “Hollywood” sign as backdrop and dance routines in various period costumes—and perhaps more significantly for the Asian debut of young American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Lauricella, who took the lead role of the ingenue Rosina.
The term “Chinese opera” usually refers to the traditional Chinese art form, but there are an increasing number of examples of modern attempts—such as the recent Dream of the Red Chamber—at a sort of cultural fusion of Chinese themes and traditions with Western operatic style and format. It is probably fair to say that none of these yet rises to the level of a Rigoletto or Carmen in the minds of either the public or critics, but the potential cultural rewards of a Chinese operatic repertoire successfully existing alongside and complementing the European ones are so obvious that is commendable and hardly surprising that the efforts are accelerating.
New operas are not perhaps as rare as sometimes made out to be, but it is nevertheless hard to underestimate the significance of Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber appearing at the Hong Kong Arts Festival so soon after its premiere at the San Francisco opera last Autumn.