That He Hui chose to open her concert, part of a 20th career anniversary tour of China, with Adriana Lecouvreur’s first act aria from Francesco Cilèa’s eponymous opera says everything one needs to know about this Chinese soprano’s attitude towards her art.
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.
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.
Rather than mounting a second production, Hong Kong’s newest opera company, “More than Musical”, decided to reprise La Traviata, first shown here in June. This was probably a wise decision, artistically and logistically; after all, due to the deliberately small size of the spaces that the company uses for intimacy, only a few hundred people—fewer in total than fit in even one of Hong Kong’s smaller traditional venues—saw it last time. The performances themselves benefited from what was in effect a longer run of six, rather than just three, outings.
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.