Nicholas Gordon talks to Neal Goren, music director for the world premier run of the chamber opera Mila at the Asia Society in Hong Kong.
How would you define “chamber opera”? How does it differ from “traditional” opera?
Chamber opera is defined by the economy of means, versus traditional opera is more about the extravagance of means: a much smaller orchestra, a small cast with either no or very little chorus, and more modest sets. It’s more about elegance than it is about size. It’s not about grandeur; just what is suitable for the libretto.
Battle scenes with a hundred or two hundred people would be avoided. The plots are much more about human relationships: things that lend themselves to smaller gestures. There’s an equal amount of passion as standard operas, but the passion is distilled.
You can’t do Aida without the soprano. Some might say you can’t do Aida without the elephants.
How did you get your start in chamber opera?
It basically didn’t exist when I started out. It grew out of a particular venue I was invited to see on the Lower East Side of New York: the Henry Street Settlement. I was invited with the hope that I would start an opera company.
The venue was exquisite. It’s what I would call a jewelbox theater: 350 seats, very elegant, very European. It had a very small pit, a very small lighting board, and very small wings, so it’s not suitable for anything big. The person heading the organisation hoped that we’d do small version of standard operas, of Aidas and Carmens, but at that time, New York had two great opera companies: the Metropolitan Opera and City Opera (which no longer exists in that form). They were doing these operas on a daily basis, and so I thought the last thing anyone would be interested in was seeing these operas scaled down. Those operas are intended to be seen on a grand scale, in a big theater with a big orchestra and big sets.
Looking at the space, I thought the best way to use it would be chamber opera. At the time, this was a weird thing to think. No one was doing it and in fact when I started people in the profession were very condescending. This however changed over time, from condescension to admiration to imitation: now all the big opera companies in the country developed an arm for chamber opera in their organisation.
Singers enjoyed participating in chamber operas. Audiences loved it too, because chamber opera belongs in intimate spaces. It has an enormous intensity and power for the audience that is rather rare in bigger spaces.
You mentioned the original plan was to do scaled-down versions of traditional operas. You would not consider those to be in the same category as chamber opera?
I would not. One exception is Peter Brook’s reimagining of Carmen for a very small orchestra. I did that a couple years ago with Nic Muni, who has also directed in Hong Kong. It had an orchestra of maybe thirteen, and the whole piece was pared down to its absolute essentials: the relationships between various people. Most of the smaller characters were jettisoned in favor of the essence of the story.
I would consider that to be chamber opera, but it is a different animal from the original. It focuses on the core of the story, the core relationships really take center stage. Anything that does not draw attention to that is thrown away.
The sounds of the percussion is something I’ve never heard in any opera—chamber or otherwise.
You’re here in Hong Kong to conduct Mila. What’s this chamber opera about?
The piece is a chamber opera commissioned by the Asia Society of Hong Kong from two great artists: Candace Chong, who’s a very well-known librettist and playwright here, and the composer Eli Marshall. It’s a chamber opera with incredibly interesting sounds. It’s an orchestra of ten: two pianos, four percussionists (playing over two hundred instruments), three strings and a clarinet. The sounds of the percussion is something I’ve never heard in any opera—chamber or otherwise. There are pots and pans, canisters of chopsticks that are shaken, all sorts of tubular bells, tuned sticks, bottles that have been tuned. They suggest a kitchen, as the opera takes place in the dining room with the “kitchen” just offstage.
The cast plays a Hong Kong family, with an American husband, his Hong Kong Chinese wife, their son and the Filipina housekeeper. Everyone speaks in their native tongue: the husband speaks in English, the wife speaks in Cantonese, the child speaks in both and occasionally in Tagalog, and the housekeeper speaks almost exclusively in Tagalog.
It was a real challenge for the composer to set the languages. We actually had a Chinese coach to make sure that the composer set it tonally in the right way. While the composer does speak Chinese, he first had various people actually speak it, so he could hear the intonation and variance of the pitch, and then he’s got other experts here to make sure it’s correct and comprehensible.
When did you join the project?
It’s now been well over two years. When the Asia Society of Hong Kong commissioned this piece, they realized that since they had never done this before, they needed someone who had actually been involved in commissioning opera.
They’ve assembled this incredible production team, as good as I’ve had anywhere in the world, who are very much on top of things. I was fully expecting to have to revise the production schedule totally, but instead they have people who are very experienced who understand what you need, when you need it.
Is chamber opera more conducive to new works than traditional opera?
I think the question to begin with is: what is the goal of an opera? If it’s for the audience to feel involved, empathetic, moved and touched, chamber opera is a much better medium, because the intensity of opera is distilled by being in a small environment. I think many have had the experience of being in a big theater. There’s so much happening, there’s such a big space, and there’s hundreds if not thousands of people. It’s easy for your mind to wander. But in the case of chamber opera, the singers are very close, almost as if they were singing in your living room. It’s a much more palpable sensation.
And do you think the audience that goes to chamber opera is more receptive to new works?
If someone goes to the opera because they want to have an experience where they feel a kinship with the characters, want to lose themselves, and be involved, then chamber opera is in some ways a much better medium, because that sort of involvement and empathy happens much more easily in a small space. Not that it can’t happen in a big space, but it takes really exceptional singers with really big voices and a sense of drama. It’s a higher bar: it’s possible, but it’s much more difficult in a big space with a big standard opera.
It seems like there’s a lot more risk involved in a big space: a lot of moving parts, a lot of people…
It’s a different sort of risk. There’s a greater emotional risk for the performers in a small space, because the audience is right there, and they can tell if you’ve engaged them or not. In a big space, you can’t tell: you’re singing into a big black void. You just have to hope for the best that it is somehow catching people on an animal level.
Is this your first time working in Asia?
I’ve been on tour in Korea a couple of times with a very well-known Korean singer named Hans Choi, or Choi Hyun-soo. I toured with him after he won the Verdi competition in Italy and the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in the same year. He became this huge star in Korea, so much so that he got a ticker tape parade in Seoul, like Van Cliburn got in New York when he won the Tchaikovsky competition. We’d be walking in Seoul and he would get rushed by these teenage and preteen girls to get his autograph. He was such a star. You don’t see that in classical music anywhere anymore, except perhaps in Salzburg.
What was really wonderful to see was that he always programmed Korean folk songs as the last group of songs in the recital, and he would have it as a singalong. He would gesture for the audience to sing along and they would, happily. These huge concerts of three thousand people would sing in perfect tune, which would never happen in the United States, I can tell you that.
I remember speaking to him in astonishment when I heard that. He said that, in Korea, an educated person sings in tune. It’s part of a person’s education. I’ve never heard that outside of Asia. To me, it’s an incredible thing: a love and understanding of music, and being able to sing, as part of a normal education.
Have you noticed other differences between working here and working in the United States or Europe?
I’ve noticed that there’s a level of organization here that’s been second to none. There’s a care for detail and understanding that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world.
The classically-trained human voice is the best conduit of emotion that exists.
Clearly the music industry—not just opera—has undergone a lot of change recently. You’ve talked about chamber opera as the “art form of the future”. Is chamber opera better placed for the coming future?
When you have a smaller ensemble, a smaller everything, you have the ability to be much more nimble. You are able to ride the waves of economic change. If the stock market goes up and the donors contribute more, you can have a slightly more grand production, you can hire a couple more violinists. And if the stock market and donations go down, you will be able to change things in the other direction without losing anything artistically. It’s like deciding whether to have a cherry on the sundae or not: in the end, it’s still a sundae.
You can’t do Aida without the soprano. Some might say you can’t do Aida without the elephants. I remember a friend of mine did Cavalleria rusticana and he got letters from donors complaining that there was no donkey in the show. They thought it was essential to the opera. I don’t: the donkey does not sing, does not play an instrument. It’s just there to have a bit of local color, and there are other ways to get that.
But there are no such expectations of chamber opera. The goal of chamber opera is for the audience to have an emotional experience, and there are various ways of doing that. It’s the same goal as grand opera, but chamber opera is much more nimble.
You always hear stories about audiences at the Met or La Scala booing when they try to do something different.
Exactly. Anything that they haven’t seen before, or they feel doesn’t correspond to their particular idea of the opera that they’ve acquired by listening to recordings of singers from fifty years ago.
My experience, in all of opera, is that if you have great singers, the audiences will go with you any directorial take on a piece. If the singers aren’t good, then they’ll be less forgiving. A director might feel exactly the opposite. They might say that if the audience members are getting a first-rate theatrical experience, they’ll put up with a musical experience that isn’t so strong. But I’m a musician, so I come from the opposite standpoint: if the musical experience is strong, then the theatrical experience can be done in any number of ways. The audience can go with you.
The “center” of opera seems to follow the money over time: first Paris, then Vienna, then over to New York. With the rise in financial resources in Asia, how do you see this center moving over time?
It depends on audience development. Audiences here have the disposable income to attend an opera, whether a grand opera at Hong Kong Opera, or a chamber opera here [at the Asia Society]. But people also need to have disposable time. I mean, it takes an evening of your life. People are very busy here, as they are in every major city, and so they have to want to budget the time.
If the audience develops, this would be a logical place to be a big center for opera. The opera is no longer a place for people to show their sophistication, their learning, and their riches to others. Therefore, the opera experience has got to be something else. It’s got to something even better than the internet.
The question for me is: what does opera do better than anything else? To me, the classically-trained human voice is the best conduit of emotion that exists. If opera focuses on that, then I feel that audiences will develop.