Opera has a natural home in international-minded Hong Kong

Warren Mok says despite its Western origin, opera has become an art form that appeals to a global audience, thereby allowing it to serve as a cultural bridge into mainland China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 2:36pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 2:36pm

From London and New York to Paris and Sydney, the opera house is one of the city's iconic buildings, a focus for everything from civic pride to postcards. And Hong Kong will, in the not-too-distant future, have its own world-class venue in the West Kowloon Cultural District, something as eagerly awaited by Opera Hong Kong's extended family as by everyone else.

To those who aren't (yet) aficionados, Western opera may not seem an obvious priority for an Asian metropolis like Hong Kong. It would be easy to say that opera is important merely because it is seen to be important: it is something that any aspiring international city must have. Certainly, opera's Western origins have not stopped Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai - to say nothing of Tokyo and Seoul - from investing in both opera houses and opera companies.

But a better answer is that opera is - like novels, symphonies or even pop songs - a Western art form that has become universal to such an extent that it can hardly be said to be Western any longer.

Asian opera singers have reached the highest levels of international recognition. Chinese singers have, in particular, come into their own in the past few years. And we're privileged to have of the most acclaimed, He Hui, singing the lead in Tosca this October. He Hui now lives in Verona and has sung leading roles to great acclaim on at least three continents. This is, of course, exactly the sort of universality that typifies and defines our city.

East Asian composers are, furthermore, now writing operas of their own. Opera Hong Kong premiered Huang Ruo's Dr Sun Yat-sen in 2011. The single-act work Poet Li Bai was performed here in 2009 , and Zhou Long's Madame White Snake, which premiered in Boston, won the 2011 Pulitzer prize for music.

Opera is now a truly international art form that spans Asia, Europe and the Americas. Rather than being at the far edge of this world, Hong Kong now finds itself arguably at the geographical centre.

Nor is opera, as is sometimes claimed, an "elite" art form enjoyed only by the champagne set. The appeal of opera's combination of music, singing and drama is not hard to understand. Musicals tap into the same emotions. There is nothing "elite" about it. Opera tickets need not cost much, too - it's a little-known fact that the best seats acoustically can be right at the top; the cheap seats offer the best value.

Hong Kong is fortunate to have access to opera at several levels, from visits by renowned companies to performances by more than one local company, from concerts by our fine symphony orchestras to student performances at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. All of these have brought in new audiences.

Opera in Hong Kong is integrated with the world. Chinese and international singers perform alongside each other all over the world, and productions are developed jointly by different companies.

This integration points to opera's real value for Hong Kong. The city's very special place as the only international city in China allows opera to flourish, enhances opportunities for local arts graduates and, ultimately, allows us to act as a cultural bridge between China and the rest of the world.

But people who love the opera don't usually think about economic multipliers. They come for the passion, tragedy, joy and drama.

Our October production of Tosca is in many ways quintessentially Italian: it takes place in the Rome of two centuries ago, a story about love, lust and treachery between a dissident painter, a famous singer and a corrupt chief of police. Since its premiere, audiences around the world, even those in the Soviet Union and China, have taken to this story as a reflection of their own world. Tosca, in spite of the details of its plot, isn't about politics at all, but people.

Anyone who thinks opera is just for Westerners should come see and hear Tosca - sung by "China's Three Tenors", Dai Yuqiang, myself and Wei Song, in turn - and only then decide.

Warren Mok is artistic director of Opera Hong Kong and an internationally acclaimed tenor