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.
Whether the casts for this week’s Aida are the best ever assembled for opera in Hong Kong—they have some competition from Hong Kong Arts Festival productions, including a Simon Boccanegra with Roberto Frontali, Michele Pertusi, Giorgio Berrugi and Erika Grimaldi, and a Traviata with Carmen Giannattasio and José Bros—is the sort of thing opera-goers love to debate. But these others have been traveling productions from overseas operas rather than something developed and produced by a local company.
The reportedly increasing average age of opera audiences—or the flip-side of a purported lack of appeal to new and younger audiences—is a cause of ongoing angst among opera circles the world over. Regardless of whether the reports of opera’s death may in fact be exaggerated, it is encouraging when someone deliberately sets out to do something about it.
Watching a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello in the current political climate can be profoundly depressing.
No opera composer turned to William Shakespeare more often than Giuseppe Verdi, who composed three works, Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff, based on the Bard’s plays. But if it hadn’t been for the persistence of his publisher Ricordi and would-be librettist Arrigo Boito, Verdi might well have stopped at one. He had to be coaxed out of a post-Aida retirement to write Otello, which finally premiered in 1887, sixteen years later.
But Otello was worth waiting for. A masterpiece, a thorough integration of music, words and drama that, astoundingly, manages to illuminate the original work—itself an unequalled masterpiece—on which it is based.