Shakespeare Goes to the Opera

Hong Kong is pretty conservative when it comes to culture, so Musica Viva’s current production of four opera scenes based on Shakespeare might therefore qualify as innovative. Performing full-staged scenes from different operas—neither, in other words, a full-scale opera nor a recital—is something that is usually confined to galas.

The evening consisted of the Act I duet from Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, the Act II balcony scene from Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, two arias from Ambroise Thomas’s rarely-performed Hamlet (“Être ou ne pas être”—To be or not to be—and Ophelie’s mad scene), and returning to Verdi, two scenes from Macbeth (the murder and “sleepwalking” scenes).

An evening of disparate scenes has a potential neither fish-nor-fowl problem. Recitals allow a focus on the performer, while a full opera provides coherence. A compilation of scenes may do neither. But Shakespeare here provides the chain linking these really very different operas. The stories are largely familiar, allowing these relatively brief scenes to stand alone: they come with built-in context, recognition helped by the fact that are fully-staged. As a result, the evening serves as a sort of sampler of works, none of which, with the possible exception of Roméo et Juliette, ranks with the likes of Aida, La Bohème and Carmen as sure-fire audience favorites.

Not everything has to be big and brassy—and expensive.

In this regard, the musical treat of the evening had to be the Hamlet, the least well-known opera of the four. Although Ambroise Thomas’s opera has staged something of a comeback in the past decade, it is still performed so occasionally that it must be the rare audience member that had ever heard any of it live, if at all. Rectifying this justified the entire exercise.

Somewhat paradoxically, the scenes, though fully-staged, benefited from the straightforward, small-scale production. The orchestra was small, the Hong Kong City Hall Theatre an intimate venue. Not everything has to be big and brassy—and expensive. And, encouragingly, the evening also gave further indication of the deepening pool of local lyrical ability.


Great Opera Scenes Based on Shakespeare continues at the Hong Kong City Hall this evening, 17 September, with some slight changes in cast.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books. He contributed the programme notes to this production.