THERE ARE A NUMBER of important anniversaries taking place in the classical music world this year, notably those marking the birth, 200 years ago, of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. Hong Kong's response has been to acknowledge both of these composers, with an Opera Viva performance of Verdi's Rigoletto scheduled for December, and Opera Hong Kong's production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, which runs until October 13.
For anyone looking for a gentle entry into German master Wagner's fantasy world, The Flying Dutchman is an ideal start. First performed in 1843, it's an early work of easily digestible proportions. Wagner's lengthy mature works will test any newcomer's stamina, but this comes in at a comfortable 135 minutes.
The opera is a product of its time. Representative of the 19th century's fascination with the supernatural, it was composed during the literary era of vampires, Frankenstein and hunchbacks in Gothic cathedrals. If the opera's central theme of redemption through love sounds too lofty an ideal to chew on, picture the closing scene, where an obsessed young woman throws herself off a cliff in the grip of undying love for a maritime ghost, and is then rewarded by a radiant ascent into heaven with her spectral heartthrob.
Spooky? Wagner thought so, having been caught in a treacherous storm while travelling by ship from Riga, in Latvia, to London a few years earlier. During the journey, the crew told him a folklore saga that was to become the basis of his opera. Having been cursed by Satan, a Dutch sea captain (who, supernaturally enough, doesn't have a mortal name) is forced to endlessly roam the oceans.
His only escape is that every seven years, his ship is allowed to make landfall so he can find a wife who will remain faithful until his death. In Wagner's version, this is Senta, daughter of Daland, the Norwegian sea captain who strikes a deal with the ghostly Dutchman, bartering his daughter's hand in marriage for financial enrichment.
Opera Hong Kong is presenting the performance jointly with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department in a production from Deutsche Oper am Rhein.
The Hong Kong Philharmonic will be in the pit, and the 55 singers of the Opera Hong Kong Chorus will join a cast of international stars in the leading roles, including baritones Jukka Rasilainen and Thomas Hall (the Dutchman), basses Kurt Rydl and Gong Dongjian (Daland) and sopranos Manuela Uhl and Jane Dutton (Senta). Volker Böhm is the revival director of a production that was first staged in 2000.
Warren Mok, founder and artistic director of Opera Hong Kong, is in the producer's chair.
Apart from observing the bicentenary of Wagner's birth, there's another reason for focusing on this particular work.
"There's a shortfall in Hong Kong's opera scene," Mok says. "German operas are rarely staged here. Opera lovers would love to see more, since many of the classic operas are German in origin - Wagner's Lohengrin, for example, and, of course, The Flying Dutchman. This is a not-to-be-missed production with a very strong cast, brilliant set design, excellent lighting effects, and beautiful costumes."
Being male-dominated and seriously deathly, Act One might have had difficulties with dramatic buoyancy but for Wagner's masterly writing for the orchestra. A hallmark of all his stage works, the instrumentalists supply a significant force to the narrative, and are more than a mere accompaniment.
The Hong Kong Philharmonic will be under the experienced direction of Henrik Schaefer, formerly a viola player and youngest ever member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, but now a seasoned Wagnerian conductor.
Recently appointed music director of Sweden's Göteborg Opera, his five complete performances, in 2011, of Wagner's epic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, as chief conductor of Sweden's Wermland Opera, pitched him as a redoubtable Wagner interpreter.
Acts Two and Three introduce the female element of the drama, particularly in protagonist Senta. She has long been fixated on a portrait of the legendary Dutchman, and now finds herself coming face-to-face with her obsession.
What is in her head and what is real, assuming that reality exists at all in the world of the supernatural? Soprano Jane Dutton, who played Senta earlier this year with the Indianapolis Opera, sings the role at Friday's performance.
"[To prepare for Senta] I look at young girls today, many of whom have a bit of an obsession with pop stars," Dutton says. "They have pictures of them hanging in their bedrooms; they imagine what would happen if they actually met them."
She goes on to suggest this is not much different from Senta's obsession with the portrait of the Dutchman. "For me, this makes Senta a more human character, because you could see how it is possible for her to get to a certain point without just labelling her as 'crazy'.
"Even if, in a particular production, she is being portrayed [in this way], having some reality behind her character helps make it all the more believable," says Dutton.
The Flying Dutchman, HK Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, 10 Salisbury Road, TST, October 10-13, 7.30pm. HK$150-HK$900 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2234 0303