Opera in Brief: Menotti at Hong Kong’s City Hall

Zara Chung as Lucy in The Telephone (photo: Titian Lam) Zara Chung as Lucy in The Telephone (photo: Titian Lam)

In his heyday in the years after World War Two, Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti was arguably one of the most successful and popular opera composers of the time. He took advantage of the circumstances, writing works that could be performed both on the opera stage and Broadway. His “Christmas opera”, Amahl and the Night Visitors, was the first opera specifically composed for television, at least in United States, and was a staple of pre-Christmas television for many years.

Except for Amahl and the very short The Telephone, which have found niches as accessible and relatively-easy to perform English-language operas, Menotti’s other works are rarely performed much today, and exceedingly rarely in Hong Kong. The recent production by Tutti at Hong Kong’s City Hall doubled up The Telephone with The Medium, replicating the two works’ professional premiere in New York in 1947.

The seance in The Medium
The seance in The Medium (photo: Titian Lam)

The Telephone is a 20-odd minute one-joke farce about a young woman who can’t get off the phone long enough for her beau to propose. The Medium is a longer, but still rather short two-act work of an hour of so about a seance gone wrong. Of the two, The Telephone has stood the test of time better; while the music in The Medium is more sophisticated, as drama it feels underdeveloped. Both contain stretches of the lyricism that led some to consider Menotti as Puccini’s successor.

Zara Chung’s comic timing and appealing stage presence stood her in good stead as Lucy, the phone-aholic in The Telephone. She was paired with baritone Michael Lam. Phoebe Tam gave a lyrical rendition of “The Black Swan”, the closest The Medium comes to a traditional aria. The cast was rounded out by Ivy Mak as Baba, the medium of the title, Amanda Ng, Lam Kwok Ho and Christy Li as the medium’s patrons or, more accurately, marks. The mute Toby was performed by Lau Pak Hong.

The theatrical, rather than operatic, sets emphasized the two works’ relative intimacy and close relations with theatre.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.