How busy Hongkongers can find time for some fast-paced opera

Organisers hope that More Than Musical’s 90-minute version of La Traviata and the Bel Canto Singers’ 22 Mozart songs in an original Cantonese story will whet the appetite for opera newcomers to see original full-scale versions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 June, 2017, 6:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 June, 2017, 1:05pm

Do you love the arias and choruses but can’t imagine sitting through a 3½-hour opera? New, dramatic, interpretations of Verdi and Mozart opera classics with hectic Hongkongers in mind may be just the ticket.

A 90-minute condensed version of La Traviata by More Than Musical and the Bel Canto Singers’ When Mozart Meets Da Ponte – 22 of Mozart’s much-loved songs bound together in an original, Cantonese story – both choose to stay true to the genre’s theatrical aspect while trying to shed its stuffy and plodding image.

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On June 17 and 18, MTM and backer Swire Properties will present a pared-down, contemporary version of Giuseppe Verdi’s great work about the doomed romance between a 19th-century Parisian courtesan and a young man from a provincial, bourgeois family. The new non-profit organisation, set up to promote Western operas, will stage its debut production at Swire’s just-reopened ArtisTree.

Opera director Nic Muni says classic operas originally were written for a very different audience. People would chatter, go in and out of the concert hall and generally pay far less attention to what’s happening on stage, which necessitated a slow-moving plot with large chunks of recitative so the audience wouldn’t get lost.

His heavily edited version in Italian has six professional singers covering the roles of Violetta, Alfredo, Giorgio, Alfredo’s father, Flora, Annia, Baron Douphol and Doctor Grenvil. Soprano Xu Lei and tenor Park Ji-min will lead the mainland Chinese, Korean and Hong Kong cast.

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Rumiko Hasegawa, MTM founder and managing director, says the singers will be standing among the audience, and everyone will be able to get the full impact of their powerful voices. The proximity also means that the singers won’t have to exaggerate as much as they do in a grand theatre, allowing for a more naturalistic performance, she says.

Hasegawa says she loves full-length, grand operas but appreciated that they could be daunting. “We hope to accomplish two things. First, give traditional opera goers a chance to appreciate the power of so intimate a performance. Secondly, we hope that those new to the opera will be tempted to see it in its full-scale, grand form,” she says.

On June 21, Bel Canto Singers will present an ambitious programme of 22 songs in their original Italian from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così Fan Tutte at the City Hall Concert Hall. This is no ordinary aria recital. Think Mama Mia! with most of the Abba songs rearranged. Instead of romance set on a Greek island, When Mozart Meets Da Ponte is based on an imagined visit that Mozart paid librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte with his old friend Figaro. There, at Da Ponte’s house, are housekeeper Despina and her god-sister Susanna. A lot of silliness and belting out of arias will ensue.

Artistic director and tenor David Quah, who will play Da Ponte, spent six months rearranging a lot of the songs into alternative music styles.

“There will be proper classical style, pop, rock, jazz, a cappella and accompaniment with electronic music, piano and guitar,” Quah says.

Why mess with tradition?

“It all started because my then 14-year-old son kept complaining that the classical music his mother and I listen to was ‘too old-fashioned’. So I started rearranging pieces for him at home and he decided they were more acceptable to his ears,” Quah says.

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“With this musical, I want to introduce opera music to the uninitiated and to convince people that operas are not long and boring.

“To me, nothing beats a full opera because it has everything in it – singing, stage design, acting, the orchestra. It takes an incredible amount of teamwork,” he says.

When Mozart Meets Da Ponte is not quite all that, but Quah promised it will be a serious amount of fun.

La Traviata, by More Than Musical, June 17 (7:30pm) and June 18 (3pm), ArtisTree, 1/F Cambridge House, Taikoo Place. Sold out.

When Mozart Meets Da Ponte, by Bel Canto Singers, Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, June 21, 8pm. Tickets available from Urbtix.