Opera can be its own worst enemy. Sets, soloists, costumes, lighting, chorus and orchestra don't come cheap. And when these costs are reflected in high ticket prices, charges of elitism can easily stick. This isn't too big an issue for Hong Kong, however, where students can get a ticket to see Massenet's Werther next month for only HK$90. The Opera Hong Kong (OHK) production is one of the three events that marks its fifth anniversary this year. 'Some of our [committee] members buy tickets and donate them to the less privileged and to some schools,' says Paddy Lui Wai-yu, the chairwoman of OHK. 'We also invite students to the dress rehearsal; we reserve around 500 seats for that.' But making opera-for-all an ongoing reality needs significant input from the authorities. 'No opera company can be self-supporting,' says Lui. 'You can put on a few productions but you can't last forever. It needs to receive funding from the government.' Although leading opera stars are happy to support OHK by giving solo recitals - such as mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who performs next Wednesday - it's going to take guaranteed cash to keep afloat the company's vision of an extended, four-opera season each year. OHK can't take support from the authorities for granted. For instance, its Verdi's La Traviata in 2004 was a full production staged jointly with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD). 'The LCSD provided not only moral support but also money,' says Warren Mok Wah-lun, an international opera singer and OHK's founding artistic director. 'We started the 70-30 model, whereby they put up 70 per cent of the costs and we had to find 30 per cent. We shared the box-office takings 70-30 as well. Everybody was happy, with five sold-out performances.' This model continued, but for only four productions over three years. Whether it will continue this year awaits confirmation. The Hong Kong Arts Development Council (ADC) followed up with a one-year grant of HK$264,000 for the company's 2005-06 season. The grant has been renewed each year since, but with no increase in the amount. 'The money we get from the ADC is relatively small,' says Lui. 'It accounts for only about 2 per cent of our total expenditure.' OHK's production of Werther next month is part of the Le French May festival in which government support is limited to providing the venue free of charge. The French government's more proactive help provides an example of its renowned commitment to the arts. 'For this year's production the French Consulate actually put in money, as well as helping to find the sponsors,' Mok says. 'The Italian government also chipped in money for [last year's performance of] Aida.' Mok talks of producing Verdi's Don Carlo in September, but the event isn't advertised on the OHK website yet because the company is still waiting for a green light from the LCSD. Such short time frames make it difficult to book international soloists. 'I asked about their availability last year,' says Mok. 'I can't really issue contracts until the money's there, so we can only pencil them in. Luckily, because of my connections travelling around the world, the singers have faith in me and they usually save the time.' Being unable to book venues far enough in advance compounds the problem. The government's new Venue Partnership Scheme gives priority in advance booking to selected arts organisations, but OHK isn't one of them. 'We just got a letter; we've been rejected,' says Mok. 'They didn't give us any reason. We proposed to do four operas a year.' Hong Kong began staging opera regularly in the 1960s, thanks largely to Professor Lo King-man, the former director of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA) and a former vice-chairman of the Urban Council. He produced, directed and designed performances with a level of government patronage that seems to have lost some of its ardour. '[Lo] found it much easier because his productions were all supported by the government,' says Lui. 'They commissioned him to do an opera for Hong Kong. But they treat us slightly differently; I don't know why.' Lui appreciates the positive reaction already shown to OHK by the public. 'Not long ago, I heard the British consul general talking about culture,' she says. 'He said that in London they have 19 operas in a year and 33 musicals. In Hong Kong we have two, plus the Arts Festival makes three. Our tickets sold out. We don't have a problem with ticket sales, so there's a demand.' Artistically, OHK is trying to groom local soloists for the future. Last year's production of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette ran a parallel cast of younger local singers in the principal roles; and the current production of Werther lists noticeably few western names. Establishing a professional chorus is another issue, says Mok. 'We founded our own OHK chorus in 2005. They are virtually unpaid with just HK$1,000 for their travelling expenses - that's it,' he says. How does he foresee taking this to the next level? 'If all the vocal students who graduated from the APA over the past 20 years wanted to be in the chorus, then we'd have more than enough people. As a professional chorus, we would give them a fee. We've applied to the Jockey Club [for funding]; we've applied to the government. The government said no; we're still waiting for the Jockey Club. They keep asking us questions, but they haven't said no yet,' says Mok. After five years, it's hard to assess OHK's progress without a wider reference to Hong Kong's claim to be a 'world city'. Mok is blunt: 'Tokyo - it goes without saying - is the most sophisticated city in Asia. Hong Kong, in comparison - well, there is no comparison. Hong Kong is way behind.' Opera companies in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are in similar stages of development. Mok reckons OHK's productions are more lavish, but it's worth noting that Bangkok Opera, operating in a developing country, has already staged half of Wagner's epic four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, plus three world premieres based on Thai folklore. 'Opera is something you have to support in a world-class city,' says Lui. 'Without opera, it doesn't make sense to have the West Kowloon Cultural District Project.' 'When the West Kowloon project is built, there will be an opera house,' says Mok. 'How can you call it an opera house without an opera company? It's useless.' Mok adds that, until now, OHK has been lucky to have the support of very good sponsors, 'but we can't rely on them forever.' No matter where you are in the world, he says, western opera cannot make money. 'It's like a museum. You can't make money from museums, but you need to have them. For a society like Hong Kong, people need to have the choice to hear different types of music.' Lui says: 'Because Hong Kong is an economically driven city, it's inevitable that we might have overlooked something. I don't want to condemn, but I would like to make sure that [the government] wakes up and sees that they need to do something about it. 'Hopefully, I [can] motivate people to move forward. It may be a long march, but I think we will be successful because everybody needs a lifestyle. You can't just keep on working and working.' Denyce Graves Recital, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, tomorrow, 7.30pm, tickets: HK$180-HK$880. Werther, part of Le French May, May 8 and 10, 7.30pm, tickets: HK$180 to HK$980. Urbtix. Inquiries: 2234 0303.