“Mila”, a world premiere chamber opera at the Asia Society, Hong Kong, 18-21 February

Amanda Li, Stefanie Quintin and Joseph Beutel. Photo: Asia Society Hong Kong Center Amanda Li, Stefanie Quintin and Joseph Beutel. Photo: Asia Society Hong Kong Center

It’s not often, if ever, that Hong Kong holds two opera world premieres in a single week; 2018 is off to a good start.

Mila is a one-act chamber opera of about 60 minutes, commissioned by the Asia Society—in something of a throwback to Opera’s glory years when openings and commemorations would often lead to new operas—to mark the fifth anniversary of the Hong Kong branch’s resplendent new digs.

Set in ultra-contemporary Hong Kong, Mila is super-verismo with a story that might have been taken from straight from the newspaper. The eponymous protagonist is a filipina domestic helper trapped in a dysfunctional, biracial family. The husband is an (apparently unfaithful) expat executive, the wife a tai-tai (albeit professionally active); the child is studious and ignored—whether he is actually angst-ridden to the point of being suicidal, as Mila believes, is not quite clear. “Boy”, as he is known (a pants part sung by soprano Joanne Shao), becomes the focus of Mila’s maternal instincts, having lost her own daughter under as yet unexplained circumstances.

The work is sung in three languages, English, Tagalog and Cantonese, something which it accomplishes seamlessly, although Tagalog and Cantonese seem better suited to the medium than English. There are a number of specific Hong Kong references: immigration department regulations, exam culture, exhortations for the child to speak Chinese, box in the sky living, Singapore as the “other” place.

It ends badly, with Mila being the one who dies, seeing her child again in a state of bliss in an extended final scene.

Mila is super-verismo.

Soprano Stefanie Quintin
Soprano Stefanie Quintin

Mila, evocatively sung by filipina soprano Stefanie Quintin, is the most intricate part and the only one which allows much in the way of character complexity. She is, indeed and probably not coincidentally, the only character in the main section of the opera with a name. The husband (“Sir”) and wife (“Ma’am”), sung by bass-baritone Joseph Beutel and soprano Amanda Li, are cutouts against which Mila lives out her anguish. Joanna Shao returns in the final scene as a ghostly Rosa, Mila’s lost daughter. However, Shao’s two characters are dressed and act so differently, there is—other than being sung by the same soprano—no real connection between them; it was unclear whether this doubling of roles is meant to drive home the conflation of Mila’s emotions or was merely a casting decision.

The Asia Society ensemble—singers, orchestra, staging, production—was professional, integrated and coordinated. The composer is Eli Marshall, an American who has lived for a considerable period in China and Hong Kong. The music is “modern” and integrates pots, pans and bottles to evoke the sounds of the kitchen where Mila predominately stays. The challenging score was was ably played by the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble conducted by New York-based chamber opera expert Neal Goren.

The immediateness of the story drew nods, giggles and sometimes tears of recognition.

Mila will not be to everyone’s taste. The music is neither pretty nor tuneful. It is not, as some contemporary operas are or try to be, “neo-Puccini”. While traditional opera-goers might find the work difficult in places, the audience—at least for the Sunday matinee—did not seem to be made of traditional opera-goers: there were sizeable numbers of students and other domestic helpers (to whom Quintin made a touching dedication at curtain call). The immediateness of the story—a libretto by local Hong Kong playwright Candace Chong—drew nods, giggles and sometimes tears of recognition. If the objective was to bring in new audiences, the production seems to have succeeded.

It is always tempting to try to find a context for new works, but Mila is treading a relatively untrodden path. While contemporary opera in Chinese is no longer rare, Mila is a work of fusion in language, setting and plot, reflecting the environment in which was conceived and to which it refers. This strength—being set so explicitly in Hong Kong—is however perhaps also a weakness: the emotional plight of migrant workers is not limited to Hong Kong but the great number of Hong Kong-specific references and the combination of languages might distance it from audiences elsewhere.

That being said, Mila bears a resemblance to Puccini’s Suor Angelica, also a one-act opera, and likewise about a mother who dies seeing her lost child in a state of bliss. Puccini puts Angelica through an emotional and dramatic crisis—a visit from an imperious aunt—to trigger her suicide. It less clear what, all of sudden, leads Mila to the same act: was it (just) a rejection from the child in her care which we only see via home security system video?

Mila is treading a relatively untrodden path.

Mila is drawn directly from the social fabric of this city; the connection with the audience can therefore be visceral. The Asia Society’s challenge may well be whether this will hold true for audiences who come to this new chamber opera from other backgrounds.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.