Opera travels well. Its stories are the stories of our collective humanity—love, loss, revenge, strife, rebellion, rejuvenation, absurdity, tragedy—and its archetypes not only define cultures but also connect them. In many respects, we can no longer speak in essentializing ways about Western opera or Chinese opera, but rather must address the world of opera and global operatic voices.
Hong Kong soprano Louise Kwong recently completed a run of two performances as the lead in Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème at the Opera di Roma, marking her debut with one of Italy’s leading companies.
Arguably the most successful Western opera singer to come out of China, soprano He Hui is known for her roles in Madama Butterfly, Tosca and Aida.
A selection of photos from Musica Viva’s “La Bohème”, December 2017.
This November in New York has featured three different versions of the Madame Butterfly story on stage: the original at the Metropolitan Opera, a revival of the David Henry Hwang play M. Butterfly and a revival of the musical Miss Saigon. Of these, I managed Hwang and Puccini back-to-back.
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.
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.