Leaving on a high note with Opiume for the masses

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 October, 2004, 12:00am

The Hong Kong performance of Mark Chan's chamber music opera, Opiume, for the New Vision Arts Festival, may mark the end of his time in Asia for a while. The Singaporean composer is already working on several new projects as he prepares to move to Paris.

'I've been going to Paris on and off for the past six years and I've been attracted to the city,' he says. 'But with my partner returning there I've decided to take the plunge.' Chan says he hopes to perform his Little Toys/Live Music - which premiered at last year's Hong Kong Arts Festival - and is talking with Vietnamese-French choreographer Ea Sola, who wants to do a piece with him at the Theatre de la Ville.

But that's all in the future. For now, Chan is concentrating on putting the finishing touches to Opiume, which premiered at the Singapore Arts Festival this year. 'We're changing a few things for the Hong Kong performances,' he says of the production by Singapore's Checkpoint Theatre. Working with director and video artist Casey Lim, Chan is tightening the piece by 'cutting out the role of the narrator, demarcating the six [musical] movements more clearly, injecting historical background and also bringing the focus back to the music and the libretto'.

Opiume tries to address the dark episode of the Opium Wars during the 19th century, infusing it with some modern-day perspective. It is not, however, a narrative of the historical events that China has called its 100 years of shame. 'I'm trying to distil the essence of the impact of western colonisation, my perception of the Opium Wars and of the modern world,' says Chan, who also wrote the libretto. 'It's really a series of reflections on what happened and how we're all still feeling the effects of it today. We live in a post-colonial world.'

Opiume, which cost S$300,000 (HK$1.4 million) to produce, includes digital touches by Lim, making it an unusual cross-media piece. The Hong Kong performance brings together some of the best musicians in Singapore (the T'ang Quartet and pianist Belinda Foo) and Hong Kong (percussionist Margie Tong, sheng player Loo Sze-wang, dizi and xiao player Chu Siu-wai, and guan and suono player Law Hang-leung). Complementing the mostly Chinese-style instruments will be western-style vocals from three opera singers from Australia: China-born tenor Xie Kun, baritone Paul Hughes and soprano Judith Dodsworth.

Chan, who wrote the 100- minute-long Opiume in five months, divided the chamber opera into six movements, which reflect several chapters of the Opium Wars story: Discovery, Intoxication, Economics, Addiction, Conflict and Epiphany.

Chan focuses on themes of power play, the cultural fascination westerners had with China, and clashes between the Occident and the Orient.

'I'm trying, somehow, to find a way forward through the sordid histories to find hope and a means of living together,' he says. 'To quote from Epiphany, 'These are not simple times'.'

He says Hong Kong audiences should find the subject especially poignant as the territory was born from the Opium Wars. 'As a Singaporean, I'm very westernised,' he says. 'But I'm also Asian and Chinese, and I feel strength in both traditions.'

Chan has always been something of a spokesperson for Singapore. His father has been the national swimming team coach for 23 years, and Chan himself held the national record for backstroke for many years. Yet, he was always an artist at heart. 'I think my father realised from an early age that I had some artistic gifts,' he says. 'So, besides swimming, he set me off on painting.'

Having studied fine arts at the Edinburgh College of Art, Chan then discovered Chinese ink painting. 'The medium intrigued me,' he says. 'I was confronted with a tradition that was completely different.'

At the same time, Chan underwent classical singing training as a countertenor, after learning to play the guitar and flute on his own. 'I'm really not coming from a musical family.' He was never taught composition and still has a problem translating music on to paper with any speed.

As a musician, he rose to pre-eminence with his 1991 China Blue album, which mixes Chinese flute, Indian sitar and modern keyboard. Although he has made seven albums, his most recent was back in 1998. 'I got tired of the album process and I wanted to go back to classical music,' he says. 'I needed a change.

'If you live in this present day and age, it's a little strange if you don't break the walls down as an artist. I get a lot of inspiration from everyday music, from movies, books I read, from politics. Working across disciplines has always been very stimulating.'

Opiume, Nov 5-6, 8pm, Kwai Tsing Theatre,12 Hing Ning Rd, Kwai Chung, $100, $160, $240. Urbtix. Inquiries: 2370 1044.