International dimension makes Hong Kong Arts Festival a red-hot ticket right now
A wealth of international stars will blow into town for the Hong Kong Arts Festival but is there enough investment in local talent, asks Sam Olluver
The 41st Hong Kong Arts Festival is gearing up for its traditional takeover of the cultural scene in February and March, bearing an Aladdin's cave of performances in music, dance and theatre - most of which will be staged by artists from the international circuit.
Counter sales opened yesterday and it's unwise to procrastinate since many shows will be a sell-out: 96 per cent of tickets were snapped up during the 2012 festival.
This year, 49 acts involving about 1,500 performers are mounting 145 paid performances over 40 days, with a sub-industry of satellite events comprising talks and workshops in the Festival Plus programme and educational specials under the Young Friends Scheme. More than 120,000 tickets are going on sale to the public.
One reason for the event's robust position on the Hong Kong arts calendar is that it was established long before many of the city's other arts organisations were founded. What was originally a citizens' private enterprise, however, now depends on government funding for its multimillion-dollar aspirations.
For the 2013 festival, that subvention is just more than HK$33 million, with the balance of the total estimated budget of HK$105 million to be recouped from HK$40 million in ticket sales and HK$31 million from sponsorships and donations, including a contribution of about HK$11 million from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust.
Such a comprehensive festival could never carry a single theme connecting all the spokes, which makes it tricky to paint a succinct overview of what's on offer.
"There are strands running through it, however," explains Tisa Ho, the festival's executive director. "This year, for instance, there's a sort of essay on the United States."
She cites the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's two programmes directed by Riccardo Muti that feature staple works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms; also the American Ballet Theatre's classic production of Romeo and Juliet that pairs choreography by Sir Kenneth MacMillan with Prokofiev's celebrated score.
"This exemplifies how they've taken basically European traditions as an immigrant nation and made them their own," says Ho, before turning to Chinglish, a romantic comedy by David Henry Hwang that centres on how much can get lost in translation between two foreign tongues. "It's an American play that looks at American engagement in China."
Mission Drift, a contemporary music theatre piece from New York's The TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment), gives a historical perspective on the American Dream, following a young Dutch couple from Amsterdam who journey to the US. "It's America looking at itself and capitalism, from early immigration to New York through to Las Vegas," says Ho.
Then there's Einstein on the Beach, the recently revived opera from the artistically explosive period of 1970s New York, with music by Philip Glass and staging by Robert Wilson. At four and a half hours without an interval, the experience will definitely be a one-off.
However, Verdi's La Traviata from the San Carlo Theatre in Naples will be more a case of déja vu in the light of Opera Hong Kong's production of the same work in October.
Was that a deliberate decision? "Yes," Ho says. "I think we're a big enough town to have two Traviata in a big Verdi anniversary." The year 2013 marks the bicentennial of the composer's birth.
From opera to jazz to world cultures, music again dominates the festival line-up. Many programmes come straight down the line: period music from Marc Minkowski and his French baroque specialists, Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble; Esperanza Spalding's expo of modern jazz; and a riot of gypsy sounds from Goran Bregovic's Wedding and Funeral Orchestra.
Others, however, step into crossover territory. The Australian Chamber Orchestra splices music and nature together in The Reef, a cinematic exploration of Western Australia's surf and turf with an eclectic selection of music as a live backing track.
The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is a production from the London-based theatre company 1927 that fuses animation and live music in a cinematic fairy tale; Pictures at an Exhibition from pianist Mikhail Rudy melds a live performance of Modest Mussorgsky's work of the same title with his own film based on animations of artist Wassily Kandinsky's designs for a 1928 staging of the score.
Directing a festival on this scale carries logistic nightmares and financial concerns in addition to the artistic challenges. Ho's experience in the business dates back to the 1980s, when she was part of the administrative team for the Singapore Arts Festival. Both there and in Macau, says Ho, the annual jamborees receive 100 per cent financial support from the government - a level that can carry its own dangers, she acknowledges.
But Ho suggests that the recent increase in the government funding to 30 per cent of the festival's total expenditure is still puny in comparison with the percentages received by the major local arts groups.
Maybe this is a case of apples and oranges.
Last year's subsidy for the Hong Kong Philharmonic, for example, came to 58 per cent of total expenditure (down from 68 per cent in 2004) but it maintains a workforce of about 125 musicians and support staff who nurture from start to finish every performance that the orchestra presents. Much of the grant is ploughed back into the local economy.
In contrast, the Arts Festival employs only 30 staff and generally buys ready-to-go acts, the outlay for which feeds the tax regimes and consumer outlets of other countries.
Local artists may lack international cachet, but it's generally held that they should be involved to an appropriate degree in the city's high-profile festivals, partly to help oil the software for when the cavernous West Kowloon Cultural Development Project is up and running. In 2010, the government granted the festival an additional subvention of HK$70 million, spread over five years, as part of that forward planning.
Charles Lee Yeh-kwong, the festival's chairman at the time, announced that the government "wants us as an institution to build audiences". Ho reports that the festival has this year committed part of that money to mount a certain number of performances in the New Territories.
Lee also indicated at the time of the increase that "the extra HK$14 million [per year] will help us to put together programmes of local artists", but it takes a bit of hunting to pinpoint that investment. This year, for example, the festival has undertaken to commission, produce and curate six new works from local choreographers for the Hong Kong Jockey Club Contemporary Dance Series - but these are all underwritten financially by the Jockey Club.
"It's not an extra subsidy for a spelt-out purpose," says Ho. "It's an extra subsidy for the entire festival."
So, that's that sorted … sort of.
The festival's other local commissions this year comprise composer Chan Hing-yan's chamber opera Heart of Coral, set to a libretto by Yan Yu; Smear, a study in the consequences of arts criticism by actress and playwright Wong Wing-sze; and Blast, a humorous observation of the domestic friction engendered by cramped urban housing from Wang Haoran, the Hunan-born playwright.
The festival officially launches with the American Ballet Theatre's programme on February 22 - by which time, however, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will already have been and gone following their performances on January 28 and 29, while One Man, Two Guvnors from the National Theatre of Britain will be near the end of its run, having opened on February 15.
With three such distinguished companies forming the overture for the 2013 festival, is it going to be the biggest and the best yet?
"It's always the biggest and the best," Ho says.
Fresh at the Fest
More world premieres:
New work by Zygmunt Krauze in "Music About China VII" performed by Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra
Green Snake performed by the National Theatre of China
Working Process by Er Gao, part of the Asia Pacific Dance Platform
More Asian premieres:
Il Marito Disperato, by San Carlo Theatre, Naples
Marcin Markowicz's Third String Quartet performed by the Lutoslawski Quartet.
Anders Hillborg's Peacock Tales for clarinet and tape by Martin Frost.
Rameau's Une Symphonie Imaginaire performed by Les Musiciens du Louvre
LEO performed by Circle of Eleven
Alexei Ratmansky's Shostakovich Symphony No 9 performed by the American Ballet Theatre
Nya by Compagnie La Baraka
Rian by Fabulous Beast
Sun Shang-chi's Traverse, part of the Asia Pacific Dance Platform