SOMETHING HAS BEEN bugging internationally renowned tenor Warren Mok ever since he arrived home to Hong Kong 10 yeas ago. For a man who has spent much of his time since promoting western opera in Asia and China, he was constantly perplexed by the lack of an indigenous full-time company here. 'If Seoul has 15 opera companies, why should Hong Kong have none'' he thought. During those years, the city has had to content itself with two major opera programmes in Hong Kong every year. One takes place during the Hong Kong Arts Festival, which begins in February, and usually includes one or two full-scale opera productions, with whole troupes and production sets hired from overseas. In addition, local producer and director Lo King-man also puts on one production each year with a mixture of international and local performers - this year it was Macbeth - for the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD). Both take place at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre's Grand Theatre. It is a fairly poor diet for opera fans and Mok began asking others the question he kept asking himself. It was during one such conversation in February that prompted him to decide the answer lay with him. 'I was dining with a group of friends when I mentioned that Hong Kong should have its own opera company. Many of them encouraged me to found one.' Inspired, Mok set about drumming up support and funds to form Opera Hong Kong (OHK) - the city's first professional opera company. 'I was raised in Hong Kong. It is where my roots are. Using my years of opera experience, I would like to do something for the Hong Kong arts scene,' he says. By July he had achieved his initial goal: OHK was registered as a non-profit organisation, chaired by Moses Cheng, chairman of the Football Betting and Lotteries Commission. It boasts an illustrious cast of board members - such as surveyor Kan Fook-yee, the vice-chairman, honorary advisers including tycoon Sir Gordon Wu and ex-chief secretary Sir David Akers-Jones and artistic advisers as distinguished as composer Tan Dun and local soprano doyen Barbara Fei. Mok is artistic director. Support within the arts community appeared to be broad. At a press conference in August, chief executives of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the Hong Kong Arts Festival, and the Hong Kong Arts Development Council all turned out. 'I returned to Hong Kong with a dream to found an opera company,' Mok says. 'I have realised this dream with the help of friends who share my enthusiasm.' Darwin Chen, head of the Arts Development Council, was quoted as saying it was the fulfilment of a dream he had had for longer than Mok - 20 years, however, curiously, he declined to be interviewed for this article. The company's first fundraising gala concert, titled Love, For Hong Kong, For Opera, will be held tomorrow at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA). It promises to be a grand scene, at which Mok, nine guest soloists and a chorus - altogether more than 100 artists - will share the stage to perform famous excerpts from 20 opera and musical classics such as Don Giovanni, La Traviata, Turandot and My Fair Lady. Although Mok has produced several operas in Shanghai, Beijing and Macau, this will be his first in Hong Kong, the city he grew up in but left to study singing at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Mok built up his international reputation performing with overseas companies at such venues as Deutsche Oper Berlin and New York's Carnegie Hall. His connections helped him pull together an all-star cast for OHK's gala concert. The guest soloists come from the US or Europe and will be accompanied by the Orchestra Internazionale d'Italia. The chorus is drawn from the Opera Society of Hong Kong, which often participates in existing local opera and concert productions. 'Our members will sing as volunteers,' says chorus master Raymond Fu. 'I'm happy that so many people in Hong Kong are promoting opera.' Audiences have also been responsive, with the show nearly sold out. Mok hopes to raise $2 million from the concert to add to the $1 million in the start-up fund contributed by the 50-odd founding members, yet the cost of just one staged opera production could reach $4 million to $5 million. The reality is that OHK is cash-strapped. It appears the company will need public money or a private endowment fund for long-term survival, neither of which it has yet secured. Money is just one obstacle Mok must surmount. OHK does not have an opera house as its 'home' - Mok hopes one could be provided at the future West Kowloon Cultural District, but that is years away. For now it can hire venues using private sponsors' money - as with the gala concert - but an opera production usually needs the same venue booked for two continuous weeks for preparation, and top government-run venues such as the Cultural Centre often have the best slots booked months in advance by major, government-sponsored groups. In addition, the company does not have a house orchestra or even a chorus, not to mention house soloists. It means Mok is starting from scratch, but he is determined. 'As a Hong Kong Chinese I feel a sense of mission to promote opera in Hong Kong,' he says. 'It is time for me to make a contribution.' After the inaugural concert, it may be many months before it hosts another full-scale performance. In the meantime Mok hopes to work on educational projects, recruiting local singers to tour Hong Kong schools with a pianist. The group would perform a half-hour programme at each stop to introduce opera to students. 'I did this in the US and it worked well,' Mok enthuses. If OHK does get to stage another large-scale performance, Mok has been toying with a few ideas. He says he would first like to put on two programmes - a staged opera and a concert version of an opera. He intends to start with well-known works but is also interested in contemporary Chinese operas and there has also been mention of a musical. Mok says he is likely to ask the Hong Kong Philharmonic or the Hong Kong Sinfonietta to play the orchestral part, while the soloists would be a mix of home-grown talents and overseas professionals. The chorus would also be local, probably the existing Hong Kong Opera Society chorus. He's convinced his venture is viable. In the past year, Macbeth and the Arts Festival opera - Stuttgart Opera's production of Mozart's The Abduction From The Seraglio - had attendances of more than 80 per cent. 'Hong Kong can support more productions,' he argues. Even so, ticket sales almost never recoup production costs for a classical music performance. With opera, even a sold-out show might cover just half the cost. Mok may be applying for the same LCSD funds used by Lo, who has more than 25 years' experience in opera production in Hong Kong. This could cause a fissure in the opera community, a view enhanced by Lo's absence from the OHK press conference, as well as from the list of advisers and founding members of OHK. But Mok denies any rift with Lo. 'I invited him to the press conference but he said he couldn't come,' he explains with his raised tenor voice resounding in the small office of OHK in Wan Chai. ' Why would I want to fight against Mr Lo? He has been supportive.'' Nevertheless, Mok adds that 'competition leads to progress'. Time will tell whether it is true for opera in Hong Kong. Love, For Hong Kong, For Opera will be performed at the Academy for Performing Arts Lyric Theatre, tomorrow, 8pm. Tickets $280 to $5,000. HK Ticketing, 3128 8288 'I feel a sense of mission to promote opera in Hong Kong. It is time to make a contribution'