Hong Kong can be a curious place. Ghost Love is a new Putonghua-language chamber opera, conceived and written locally, receiving what is—insofar as I can tell—its world premier this weekend, and yet, despite a number of attractive posters placed around town, there is hardly any mention of this in the press or online.
Ghost Love, based on a 1939 novella by the writer Xu Xu (1908-1980), is a serious undertaking. It tells of the story of a man who falls in love with a woman who says she is a ghost. She is in fact engaged in revolutionary activities; the inhuman nature of the experience—the killing, her need for revenge—has lead her to feel disengaged from earthly existence. The man, often drunk, is a sort of foil for the consequent philosophical and psychological exploration.
The “Ghost”, as she is simply referred to—no one has a name—was sung by Louise Kwong, one of Hong Kong’s most accomplished performers (and who has just been admitted to the Opera di Roma’s young artist program). Kwong is always worth going to hear; this performance was alternately aloof and angst-ridden. The “Man” was ably performed by tenor David Quah. It is not vocally as attractive a role; the character is drunk most of the time. The cast was rounded out by bass-baritone Apollo Wong who sonorously personified the moonlight which pervades the piece as a sort of one-man chorus.
The production, by Japanese director is Tomo Shugao, is simple, elegant and evocative. Lio Kuokman, well-known to Hong Kong opera-goers, was in the pit; they did well to get him.
The main strength of the work itself, composed by Chan Hing-yan to a libretto by Yi Heng, is in creating atmosphere; this—surreal and oppressive—is what lingers after the curtain has come down. I found in this exploration of the psychological and philosophical intersection of life, death and love and its treatment on stage certain faint echoes of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.
The psychological and philosophical considerations are however explored in long passages of interior monologue. The result is some dramatic flatness; the characters are more foils for exploration of the nature of reality than real people. That being said, the opera is something of a slow-burn; it comes together around the halfway mark in the scene at the Ghost’s home where plot, psychology, music and portrayal integrate. It is perhaps no coincidence that these are the passages where the two characters are interacting most directly.
Ghost Love‘s music is mostly “modern”, although not extremely so, and Chan includes some lyrical moments: there is, in that central section of the work, a brief passage of what approaches a classical duet—the only time the composer takes advantage of opera’s unique ability to have characters communicating simultaneously—and the soprano has a fine stretch of an almost aria.
Rather than viewed in isolation, however, Ghost Love is perhaps better seen in the context of contemporary Chinese-language opera which is, in my view and based on only a few examples, still on the path of finding its voice and purpose.
Ghost Love seems an eminently worthwhile step on this journey. It has proved that modern Chinese literary classics can be mined for an entirely Chinese yet universally relatable story. It demonstrated—if this needed demonstrating—that the Chinese language is no impediment to traditional opera: of course, opera in Putonghua is “different”, but so is opera in English. It showed the benefits of singers singing in (more or less) their own language. It proved the value of chamber opera in its immediacy and practical feasibility.
It also provided, no less importantly, some indication that Hong Kong can, when it puts its mind to it, make valuable contributions to this emerging genre.
Ghost Love continues at the Hong Kong City Hall Theatre through Sunday 14 January.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.