Hong Kong group to strip down operas and bring them to the people

Works such as Verdi’s La Traviata to be condensed to length of a typical movie and staged in nightclubs and bars by a non-profit company set up by two opera fans hoping to broaden genre’s appeal

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 October, 2016, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 5:17pm

A new non-profit opera company in Hong Kong will soon be producing condensed versions of Western classical operas away from the formality of concert halls so that more people may be lured by the genre’s passion and music.

More Than Musical (MTM) is a local charity founded by Rumiko Hasegawa and Lucy Choi Ting-ting, two avid opera fans who are equally aware of the allure of full-scale opera productions and their drawbacks.

“Hong Kong people are so busy. They don’t want to invest three or four hours of their time to see an opera. People are also intimidated by the theatre setting and the foreign languages. They think they won’t understand opera,” says Hasegawa, who used to work as an investment banker in Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Together with Choi, a former manager at classical music concert and festival presenter Premiere Performances Hong Kong, she invited Nicholas Muni, a seasoned stage director and instructor in the US, to be in charge of MTM productions.

The reason we continue to do these great classics is that their essence transcends time and space
Nicholas Muni

Muni says that operas tend to have simple plots, making it possible to shorten them to around 100 minutes and still be loyal to the original.

“Prior to Wagner, opera performances kept the house lights on and people would go on talking and socialising. So it was important for operas to have a slow pace so that audiences could keep up with the plot,” Muni says.

One way of making operas more accessible is to take into account the faster pace of contemporary culture, he says, which is why he is aiming to keep the More Than Musical performances to “movie length”. In the US, he has been involved in what he calls “pop-up” operas outside traditional theatres that are becoming increasingly popular.

Hong Kong Arts Festival’s 2017 line-up is a refreshing change

Their first production is La Traviata, sung in the original Italian, next June, and they are considering a number of alternative venues such as nightclubs and bars that can fit around 150 people.

Muni stresses that this will not be a concert of the Drinking Song, Violetta’s Sempre Libera and other favourite arias but a performance that does not compromise the essence of the original.

There will be a cast of five to six singing roles including Violetta, her maid Annina, her friend Flora, the love interest Alfredo, his father, and the evil Baron Douphol. (Hana Park, a Korean soprano, is confirmed for the role of Violetta.)

I remember bursting into tears when I saw my first opera. Opera uncovered a lid that was placed on top of my emotions all those years
Rumiko Hasegawa

He will design the production for the chosen venue, rather than try to replicate 19th century Paris in, say, a bar.

If the original locations were essential for telling the story, he says, then the opera would have been long forgotten since no one could convincingly reproduce the setting now.

La Traviata will be occurring in Hong Kong in 2017. The reason we continue to do these great classics is that their essence transcends time and space,” he says.

Hasegawa says opera changed her life, which is why she is so keen to promote it.

“I used to work extremely long hours as a banker as well as looking after my daughter. As she got older and more independent, I realised I have no other life than being a working mother. So a friend suggested we picked a hobby together. That turned out to be singing opera arias,” she says.

“I fell in love with it. I remember bursting into tears when I saw my first opera. Opera uncovered a lid that was placed on top of my emotions all those years.”

MTM will adapt as it goes along. A single piano will accompany the first performance but if there is demand and enough donation, more musicians will be hired. English subtitles will be projected for La Traviata and the audience will also be asked if they prefer future performances to be in English.