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Performing arts in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s musical achievements deserve an ovation as it seeks to carve out a leading role on the world’s stages

Peter Gordon says the international accomplishments of local musicians and the success of the inaugural operatic singing competition show the city is hitting the right notes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2018, 5:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 July, 2018, 4:12pm

Hong Kong, and indeed China, may not be in the 2018 World Cup, but we have in the past few weeks been scoring goals on different pitches.

In opera, that perhaps most sports-like of the arts (where else does the audience boo what they don’t like?), Hong Kong soprano Louise Kwong Lai-ling just debuted at the Rome Opera, singing Mimì, the lead role in Puccini’s La Bohème. An Italian reviewer wrote: “Kwong combines volume and an extremely pleasant timbre with a pleasant stage presence, and gave admirable body and voice to the romantic character of Mimì.”

Rome is pretty much Serie A as far as opera is concerned. And Kwong was in world-class company: she sang with tenor Giorgio Berrugi, well-known on opera stages from Milan to London, and Valentina Nafornița, who won the 2011 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.

Kwong’s path to the Roman stage shows what a special achievement this is. Earlier this year, she was admitted to Fabbrica, the Young Artist programme of the Rome Opera. It admitted 15 of some 900 applicants – giving it an acceptance rate lower than Harvard University – of which just eight are singers. Kwong is not only the first Hong Kong artist to enter the programme since its founding in 2016, but also the first from China and from East Asia.

Kwong will see further action with Rome Opera as Micaëla in Carmen in July. In 2019, she is due to sing, among other things, the role of the spurned lover Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

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Opera doesn’t have a “World Cup”. It’s more like tennis in that there are a number of annual tournaments. This weekend saw the inaugural Hong Kong International Operatic Singing Competition, the first such contest here and maybe the first in this part of the world; with a US$15,000 first prize, it is one of the richest.

This competition is another step along the path of integrating Hong Kong with the international opera world, a process that has included bringing in leading singers to star in local productions and, now, with Hong Kong singers going out to return the favour.

At a gala concert for the 10 finalists on Monday evening, the Hong Kong audience was treated to a bevy of singers they would otherwise have never heard – as well as a palpable frisson of excitement and anticipation from it being a competitive event.

Norwegian soprano Margrethe Fredheim won first prize with second and third prizes going to Danish mezzo-soprano Johanne Højlund and Chinese soprano Chen Yibao, who also picked up the audience prize.

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Whether the government provides enough support to the arts is a subject of continual debate, as is whether it provides enough supports to sports or intellectual activities.

While both productions and competitions bring singers to Hong Kong ... competitions bring a couple of dozen rather than just a handful

But whatever the level of support, it’s worth taking a close look at what works. It does not take anything away from Louise Kwong’s talent and commitment to note that, without the opportunity to sing lead roles with government-supported opera companies and orchestras in government-supported venues, she would be unlikely to now be in Rome.

While both productions and competitions bring singers to Hong Kong, who then return home as operatic ambassadors, competitions bring a couple of dozen rather than just a handful. The two dozen semi-finalists who competed here, selected from 148 entries from 23 countries, included singers from Korea, China, Southeast Asia, Russia, Scandinavia, the US, Britain and South Africa.

The competition jury was chaired by the renowned Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, backed by one of Asia’s leading sopranos, Korea’s Sumi Jo, and three other international opera notables, including the formidable Lo King-man, whose project this was. Lo further roped in the Rome Opera, Fabbrica and the Elena Obraztsova Cultural Centre in St Petersburg, Russia, as international advisers to the competition. Connections make the world go around, in the arts as everything else.

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However good the contestants were – and they were good – they are all at the start of their professional careers. The Hong Kong audience would have recognised the (relatively) elder statesman performing on stage as conductor Lio Kuok-man, another local artist who now both travels the world and returns regularly to buttress the arts scene here.

The competitors could not have asked for a conductor more sensitively attuned to their situation. That was the image that remains: Hong Kong in the centre, nurturing an international arts event.

One swallow does not a summer make, nor does one soprano singing in Italy, nor one conductor directing orchestras around the world, nor even an international competition, secure Hong Kong’s place as a “world city”.

Hong Kong can make it on the world stage ... with something other than initial public offerings and real estate

But Hong Kong can make it on the world stage, and literally on the world’s stages, with something other than initial public offerings and real estate, if the city and its people make the attempt.

Louise Kwong can provide an inspirational role model for even younger Hong Kong singers, Lio Kuok-man sets a standard for other musicians to aspire to and the international competition makes Hong Kong a net contributor to the development of opera globally.

The big prize, of course, in this as everything, is China. China has been building opera houses with abandon, commissioning new operas and turning out an increasing number of singers of increasing quality. Opera is now a global art form, and who does globalisation better than Hong Kong?

Goals are being scored. But what we need now is some cheering.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books