Hong Kong opera trying to find its voice to keep up with other cities

Western art form is surviving in the city, but it faces challenges ranging from a lack of venues and funding to competition from the mainland

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 March, 2013, 11:06am

Li Yang is busy rehearsing for her opera debut, playing the title role in the Academy of Performing Arts' production of Leos Janacek's opera The Cunning Little Vixen, which opens tomorrow.

Despite being from the mainland, she has chosen Hong Kong as the launchpad for her opera singing career.

"My dream is to become a professional opera singer. I want to develop my singing career in Hong Kong," says Li, a Harbin native who will soon graduate with a masters in vocal studies from the APA school of music. "Hong Kong will be my base."

Opera has developed slowly and steadily to a position of strength in Hong Kong, so it's no surprise that talents like Li are drawn to the city. While it can't match the popularity of other Western performing arts like classical music and ballet, it has carved a distinct niche for itself here. But opera in Hong Kong now faces a new challenge as first and even second-tier mainland cities splurge on expensive new theatres devoted to the art form. And some in opera circles question whether the city will be able to compete without more public resources.

"Hong Kong is not behind in terms of opera activities," says veteran director Lo King-man, who brought Hong Kong's first full-scale version of Madama Butterfly to City Hall in 1966. "In Asia, only Tokyo and Seoul have better opera development."

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department has been a key player in keeping opera developing. It has presented or sponsored 106 performances of 26 productions in the last 10 years.

The department says the Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, which has a capacity of 1,600, has been the city's most popular opera venue for the past five years, having staged 80 performances of 20 opera productions in that time. Twelve of the productions were sponsored or presented by the department, including five co-presented by Opera Hong Kong and the consulate general of France as part of the annual Le French May arts festival.

The other eight opera productions were staged as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. The venue also hosted a production of Die Fledermaus by City Opera in 2008, and The Chinese Orphan by Opera Hong Kong last year.

Opera is an international art form. It is a must for any international city. But as 'Asia's World City', Hong Kong doesn't even have a proper opera house or full-time opera company

The Arts Festival has typically involved one or two opera productions every year. But this year, the number has gone up to four - Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, La Traviata and The Desperate Husband by San Carlo Theatre, Naples, as well as the chamber opera Heart of Coral, which was commissioned and produced by the Arts Festival.

City Hall is a popular venue for small and medium-sized opera productions, Lo says. He adds that his non-profit company Musica Viva puts on four to five productions a year. He estimates that Hong Kong audiences can enjoy seven or eight opera productions a year.

"Hong Kong is not falling behind," Lo says. "It's developing slowly."

However, tenor Warren Mok Wah-lun believes that Hong Kong is falling behind, at least in the distribution of public resources to cultivate opera.

"Opera is an international art form. It is a must for any international city. But as 'Asia's World City', Hong Kong doesn't even have a proper opera house or full-time opera company."

Mok is the artistic director of Opera Hong Kong, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. He complains that government support for opera is falling behind, compared to the backing for other Western art forms - citing the fact that none of the nine flagship performing-arts groups funded by the Home Affairs Bureau is an opera company.

High production costs and the lack of a devoted venue limit Opera Hong Kong to no more than two productions per year. A flagship season of opera performances would be impossible, Mok says.

Over the decade, Opera Hong Kong has presented 14 operas, putting on 64 performances and attracting a total audience of 93,947. The average attendance is 89.5 per cent of venue capacity. The group also conducts outreach events for young people.

Two years ago, Opera Hong Kong was awarded a "springboard grant" of HK$3 million from the Home Affairs Bureau, as part of a scheme intended to bridge the gap between the nine major performing-arts groups and smaller groups funded by the Arts Development Council.

However, the HK$3 million grant represents just 10 per cent of the home-grown opera company's annual budget for last year, according to Mok.

"I'm very grateful for the funding but it's far from enough. One opera can cost HK$7 million to produce," Mok says. The cost of producing original works is even higher. He cites the case of Dr Sun Yat-sen, a 2011 Opera Hong Kong production commemorating the centenary of the 1911 Revolution commissioned by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which cost more than HK$10 million to produce.

Mok says Hong Kong is losing out to the mainland, as new opera houses pop up in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and also in second-tier cities. He says such infrastructure can help sustain full-time opera companies in these cities.

It's a trend that is being closely monitored not just in Hong Kong but in the West, where opera is falling victim to austerity - especially in Europe.

Funding for Italian theatres has been cut by 50 per cent to €231 million (HK$2.34 billion) a year. The world-famous opera houses of La Scala and Piccolo Teatro in Milan had to take a €17 million cut in 2011. The funding cuts resulted in a violent protest outside La Scala.

The mainland, on the other hand, is building more than 50 opera houses, according to the group that runs opera-training programme I Sing Beijing. This profusion is a stark contrast to Hong Kong, where opera facilities as part of the West Kowloon Cultural District are still in the planning stages.

Western media have eagerly reported on "opera fever" on the mainland, with Western musicians reportedly eyeing an opportunity to cash in.

I Sing Beijing was conceived by Tian Haojiang, who performed with the New York Met for 19 years, to bring young international artists to China and train them to sing in Putonghua.

Critic Chow Fan-fu says that although the mainland opened up just 30 years ago, opera has developed at a rapid rate, with the number of international and local productions in Shanghai and Beijing already exceeding the number in Hong Kong.

Peking University set up the Academy of Opera in 2010. In the same year, the opera festival at Beijing's National Centre for Performing Arts featured 12 operas in 10 weeks. It was reported that in 2011, 25 opera productions were staged on the mainland, a number that it sure to have increased since then.

However, it isn't a love of soaring arias that has turned the mainland on to opera, Chow says. Rather, it's the fact that opera tickets are an expensive gift. "Expensive tickets mean face," Chow says.

And while the emergence of a new market on its doorstep may look like an opportunity for the likes of Opera Hong Kong, the reality is that high rents and other costs mean they will struggle to take advantage.

"You have to pay the fees, the cost of hotels, travel. No one in their right mind would do that," Lo says. He puts the cost of staging a single night of opera on the mainland at HK$10 million.

"There's not enough professional development to form companies, unless you have 20 to 30 weeks of work for the singers in a year. Does Hong Kong need 25 operas a year?" Lo added. "We are not in New York. We don't have the audience to fill so many performances. But West Kowloon Cultural District is not moving ahead fast enough."

The new arts hub will include the Lyric Theatre, intended for opera and other theatrical performances. It will seat 1,200 people, but is not expected to be ready for another five years.

While Opera Hong Kong has 100 singers on its books, typically just 60 are needed for any one show, meaning employment prospects for singers are grim.

"Hong Kong has talent. About 90 per cent of locally trained singers are APA graduates. But after training they have no chance to perform. There's no hope for young people because after they graduate, they become unemployed," Mok says.

APA's head of vocal studies Nancy Yuen says that her department's 28 students include one from the mainland, two from the Philippines and one from Malaysia, with the rest being locals.

She says opera in Hong Kong has a chance to expand. Besides Musica Viva and Opera Hong Kong, the Opera Society of Hong Kong and City Opera also stage shows. But slow development is deterring talented singers from taking part in the programme.

Yuen believes that grooming an audience can improve the situation. "It's art, not pop music. It's important to educate the public on how to appreciate this art form," Yuen says.

The Foundation for the Arts and Music in Asia (Fama) has taken a step in that direction with its PopUp Opera film performances. Laurence Scofield, chairman and founder of Fama, says that last year it screened La Traviata in Lok Fu, with an introduction and commentary in Cantonese. More than 4,000 people enjoyed the free event. It moved to Tsim Sha Tsui early this year and drew more than 1,000 people and will continue to travel around the city.

Scofield adds that Fama also sold more than 3,000 tickets to cinema showings of performances by the Met. He says low ticket prices have made the art form more accessible.

But Chow is not optimistic about more resources being poured into opera.

"Opera has some 50 years of history in Hong Kong. But after the colonial era, the government lacked the political will to support Western art forms. But it didn't suppress them. The government simply satisfies different needs by dividing resources equally."

Aspiring singers must seek opportunities elsewhere. Li's co-star Eric Ferrer will try his luck in Hong Kong, but he's also planning to audition elsewhere. Next month, he will go to South Korea to compete in the Seoul International Music Competition.

"Opera is booming in Hong Kong and the APA is a great platform for young performers," says Ferrer, who is Filipino.

"But opera is also being mounted elsewhere in Asia - in Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia - with Asian casts. You just need to find your way."