Opera has to work in two musical languages
If you think words get lost in translation between languages, try translating music between different types of orchestra.
Such a daunting task certainly struck a chord with Huang Ruo, the New York-based composer of the opera Dr Sun Yat-sen, which is set to premiere on October 13 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.
The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra will have the honour of launching the three-act love story after its scheduled debut in Beijing was cancelled last month.
Huang said he was commissioned to write for a Western orchestra, but was urged to do a Chinese version for the Hong Kong premiere.
'It is unfair to compare the two versions because their sound is different, but the music is the same [and] so is the creativity,' Huang said, adding that the Chinese score would be his first opus for a traditional orchestra.
He said he was lucky to be working with the Hong Kong orchestra under Yan Huichang, the group's principal conductor since 1997, and assistant conductor Chew Hee-chiat, who fine-tuned the music and orchestration on all 361 pages - or two hours of original music - of the general score.
'We expect there will be technical problems in transcribing the score from a Western to a Chinese orchestra,' Yan said. 'The strings and percussion are relatively problem-free, but the plucked instruments and the brass require some extra work.'
However, he added: 'In essence, the [Beijing cancellation] did not affect us as we were scheduled to premiere the Chinese orchestra version after the Beijing version designed for a Western orchestra.'
The conductor said Huang's style made it very challenging for the voices because the orchestral line was independent of the vocal line. That left Yan with the huge task of synchronising the music produced by the orchestra in the pit with voices from the singers onstage.
It also meant that there had to be more rehearsal time - 24 sessions - compared to nine for regular shows.
'The cancellation of the Beijing premiere has, in fact, done us some good because we are now free to adjust the scores without the Western orchestra precedent,' Yan said.
The traditional tune Three Variations of Plum Blossom in Act 2, for example, sounded almost inaudible when played on the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese instrument, so Yan raised the music by an octave.
At one rehearsal, players saw tears in Huang's eyes when Yan explained how they should perform a certain passage. 'Our job is to perform it to the best of our ability, to the satisfaction of the composer and hopefully to the joy of the audience,' Yan said.