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Wagner’s sexually explicit opera and ‘Touching the Void’ mountain survival play among 2019 Hong Kong Arts Festival highlights

  • 47th edition of city’s annual performing arts showcase will feature international luminaries and rising stars
  • Russian pianist Denis Matsuev returns – to play jazz – plus a retrospective of choreographer Lin Hwai-min’s career
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2018, 9:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 November, 2018, 4:28pm

Each year Hong Kong Arts Festival – featuring opera, theatre, dance music and family productions – presents a line-up of acts that includes the world’s leading performers and rising stars.

The 2019 programme for February and March is shaping up to be another memorable occasion with notable debuts, much-anticipated returning acts, plus a stunning gala to honour a legend from the world of dance.

Behind the scenes, too, there are fascinating stories to tell about the acts … Here are 20 facts you may not know about the annual art fiesta’s forthcoming performances.

Old classics in a new light

1. Rebel reinterprets another rebel’s opera

Tannhäuser, the opera written by German composer Richard Wagner, sparked a public outcry in 1861 when it was performed in Paris because of its explicit sexual content, but was admired by Queen Victoria, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, and Sigmund Freud.

Calixto Bieito, the iconoclastic director known as the “Quentin Tarantino of opera”, has reinterpreted the story of social pariah Tannhäuser’s struggle between Venus’s carnal passion and Elisabeth’s spiritual love. The Hong Kong premiere of this masterpiece of German romanticism, performed by Oper Leipzig – boasting more than 300 years of opera and choral tradition – sees the impulsive protagonist cast against a soulless modern society.

March 1-2, HK Cultural Centre

2. 19th-century masterpiece conducted by a millennial genius

French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz was 22 when he wrote Symphonie Fantastique, while under the influence of opium, to try to win the heart of Irish actress Harriet Smithson after she ignored his love letters.

It worked, too. After hearing the music in 1832, Smithson married him the next year.

To mark the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death, Paris-based orchestra Les Siècles presents Berlioz 150 – which includes Symphonie Fantastique and its rarely performed “sequel” Lélio – under the baton of Maxime Pascal, the first French winner of the Nestlé and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award.

The 33-year-old conductor is regarded as one of the most visionary artists of his generation.

March 2-3, Cultural Centre

3. An operatic case of East-meets-West 

Madame White Snake is a Chinese folk tale of the love story between a human and a reptile immortal, troubled by a jealous terrapin. This classic has been reinvented by composer Zhou Long, and in 2011 the adaptation earned him the accolade of being the first Chinese winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

“Simply adapting Western classical opera to Chinese music is a stupid thing to do,” says Zhou in an interview with music foundation, New Music USA. “I just can’t do it.”

Instead, Zhou combines a Western orchestra with traditional Chinese musical instruments, including the two-stringed erhu fiddle, bamboo flute and xun (a globular, vessel flute). He also blends Beijing opera inflections into vocal lines, uplifting lyrical passages, and Sprechstimme (speech-voice, a cross between speaking and singing).

March 8-9, Lyric Theatre, Academy for Performing Arts (APA), with HK Phil, Hong Kong Arts Festival Chorus and Hong Kong Children’s Choir.

4. How would Shakespeare write his plays in Chinese? 

As part of Shakespeare Folio Translation Project, a 10-year initiative by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) to translate all of the Bard’s plays into Putonghua, this dynamic reinterpretation of Hamlet follows director Li Liuyi’s sold-out 2017 production of King Lear in Beijing.

Instead of merely translating the scripts, the RSC brings actors, directors and playwrights from the UK and China to work together to authentically relay Shakespearean plays to the modern Chinese audience.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’s stellar cast includes film superstar Hu Jun, veteran theatre actor Pu Cunxin, and veteran actress Lu Fang.

March 7-9, Cultural Centre

In Hong Kong for the first time

  5. Girl power in classical music 

Marin Alsop has broken the glass ceiling a few times as a woman.

She was the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the BBC Proms in the festival’s 118-year history. After the Proms performance she said: “I’m very honoured to be the first, but I’m also rather shocked that we can be in 2013 and there can still be firsts for women.”

She also leads the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and will be making her Hong Kong debut along with the ensemble’s first visit to Asia. Her performance will include a tribute to her mentor, Bernstein, alongside Niccolò Paganini’s virtuosic concerto, and lively pieces by Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos and Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

February 21-22, Cultural Centre  

6. Appreciating flamenco through songs 

Flamenco is mostly regarded as dance, but it actually has two other components: singing and guitar-playing.

That point will be demonstrated by Catalan singer-songwriter Sílvia Pérez Cruz when she is making her Hong Kong debut performing her latest album, Dressed by the Night (Vestida de Nit), with her bare, soulful voice, backed by a string quintet.

She also takes inspiration from jazz, bolero, fado, and South American folk songs, and tells her musical stories in four Iberian languages, as well as French, German and English.

But to the 35 years old songstress, style is nothing – music is about telling tales. “The song has to have a story that I believe in and I can make my own,” she said on US National Public Radio.

March 22, Cultural Centre

7. Tribute to a belated swansong 

In 2017, Yekwon Sunwoo became the first Korean to strike gold at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, at just 28 years of age. He will perform Franz Schubert’s introspective Piano Sonata No 19 in C minor, D958.

The Austrian late Classical and early Romantic composer’s final piano sonatas, now considered some of his most important masterpieces, were initially brushed off and were only published 10 years after his death.

Schubert composed the pieces from spring to autumn in 1828 while suffering from deteriorating health since contracting syphilis six years prior. He died in November that year.

Sunwoo, in his own words, “strives to reach for the truth and pure beauty in music” and will surely bring a masterful expressiveness to one of this great musician’s final compositions.

February 23, City Hall  

8. Spanish music ‘in another time’  

The work of Tomas Luis de Victoria – a choirboy and organist who became 16th century Spain’s most famous composer – is the focus of one of two concerts at City Hall by the Spanish choir Quondam – Latin for “in another time”.

After two decades as a Catholic priest in Rome, he returned to Spain as chaplain to the Dowager Empress María and wrote his most famous work, the beguiling, sumptuous choral requiem, Officium Defunctorum, for her funeral.

The other concert covers three generations of Sevillian composers from Spain’s Golden Age, Cristobal de Morales, Francisco Guerrero and Alonso Lobo.

March 9-10, City Hall, led by acclaimed conductor of the European early music scene Rupert Damerell 

9. The street number that brings back memories 

Canadian theatre creator Robert Lepage revisits the house where he grew up in his autobiographical play 887 – named after the street number of his 1960s childhood home in Quebec City.

A francophone and “lukewarm separatist”, Lepage recalls growing up amid tensions stemming from cultural and language divides in his country.

Since performing the play, some members of the audience have made a pilgrimage to the house – even knocking on doors – much to the annoyance of residents and Lepage’s regret.

February 27-March 2, Lyric Theatre, APA

10. Rising above tragedy and ready to sing again  

German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff, a three-time Grammy award-winner, lost his voice when his brother died of cancer in 2012.

He also needed a break, so to his fans’ great disappointment he announced his retirement from singing at the age of 52.

Yet this year Quasthoff – and his velvety voice – are back performing, including a debut Hong Kong performance, featuring jazz classics such as Cry Me A River, Stardust and Summertime.

March 14, Cultural Centre

Masters return... one of them perhaps for the last time

11. From Russia with love

After a mesmerising performance earlier this year, internationally acclaimed Russian pianist Denis Matsuev is returning to the Hong Kong Arts Festival with an intimate all-Tchaikovsky recital.

He is not returning alone, however. Alexandra Dovgan, Alexander Malofeev and Ivan Bessonov from Russia and Yichen Yu from China – budding stars discovered through the Moscow-based Grand Piano Competition he founded two years ago, will be making their debuts alongside him at a separate, special evening gala.

Matsuev, who admits that “jazz is my second passion”, will also be performing a jazz concert with this band.

March 7-8, City Hall

12. Chinese percussionist ‘going global’ for more than a decade

Li Biao, who now tours with his eponymous percussion group, was the first Chinese to win an international percussion competition when he took home the top spot at the Debrecen Percussion Competition in 1993.

He was also the first Chinese percussionist to study in Moscow and take a professorship at Berlin’s prestigious Hochschule für Musik “Hanns Eisler”.

Li and his group also performed at the closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Together with five talented German and Danish artists, Li Biao Percussion Group will be presenting From Baroque to Tango – a wide repertoire of percussion-only pieces, from Vivaldi’s concerto to Piazzolla’s tango-inspired masterpieces.

March 15, Cultural Centre  

13. Looking back at the life of a master of the generation 

Lin Hwai-min was among the first choreographers to bring contemporary dance to Chinese audiences, and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan – which he founded in 1973 – has become Taiwan’s proudest cultural product.

The dance legend has announced he will be stepping down at the end of next year and the 45th Anniversary Gala Programme – Retrospectives of Lin Hwai-min's Works will pay tribute to his decades of immense contributions.

February 21-24, Cultural Centre

14. Looking at beauty of classical ballets through eyes of a legend 

Venerable choreographer John Neumeier has helmed the Hamburg Ballet since 1973, making him one of the world’s longest-serving artistic directors – with more than 150 ballets under his belt and having led the company on more than 300 tours on five continents.

Three productions by this master are coming to the Grand Theatre of the Cultural Centre: The Nutcracker re-set in the context of learning about dance (March 13-15); Beethoven Project, Neumeier’s ode to the composer’s beloved music (March 19-20); and The World of John Neumeier, a celebration on March 23-24 of Neumeier’s creations from his four decades with the Hamburg Ballet.

15. Centuries-long journey of four string instruments  

Two violins, a viola and a cello created by the world-famous Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and previously owned by legendary 19th-century violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) will be in the hands of Italian ensemble Quartetto di Cremona as they play on March 21-22 at City Hall.

The instruments are on loan from Japan’s Nippon Music Foundation. The performances include works by Verdi, Brahms, Bartók, Beethoven and, of course, Paganini.

Stories of life – including a real-life tale of survival – told on stage

16. Escaping the deadly fall  

Staged by Tony Award-winning Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris, Touching the Void is being performed at City Hall on February 21-24, 26; and March 2.

The story is based on a best-selling book by Joe Simpson, published in 1988, that recounts his survival against all odds after summiting the 6,344-metre Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes three years prior. His survival is widely regarded by climbers as one of the most amazing mountaineering tales in history.

The book sold more than half a million copies and has been translated into over 20 languages. In 2003, it was turned into an award-winning documentary film, and it was adapted this year for the stage by Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh artistic director David Greig. Expect a performance that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

17. Exploring the concept of a house becoming a home 

It was the banal act of laying a new kitchen floor that gave Geoff Sobelle the idea for his latest play, Home, set to hit the Lyric Theatre of APA on March 14-16.

Lifting the existing floor, he found more layers of linoleum tiling underneath and realised that so many other people had lived in his home before him.

The show, which combines illusion, choreography, storytelling, live music, and homespun engineering, is built on the idea that most of us share homes in ways we might not be aware.

A large-scale and energetic production, Home aims to awaken us to current housing dilemmas, locally and globally.

18. Come on a ride of emotional ups and downs  

Pippo Delbono is one of Europe's most distinctive artistic voices, in the cut of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Samuel Beckett and Pina Bausch.

He calls his latest theatre production La Gioia (Joy) – which combines flamenco, flowers, paper boats, poetry and a Fellinian circus parade – “a simple and essential story”.

But the audience will probably find it an emotional roller-coaster.

“I am thinking about ‘joy’ as something connected with a possible way out of fighting, pain and darkness. I am thinking about deserts, prisons, about people escaping from those prisons, about flowers,” he says in an artist’s statement.

March 22-23, Lyric Theatre, APA

19. Casino of life, or lies  

At the stage of £¥€$ (Lies), you are one of the players.

Director Alexander Devriendt was inspired to create the production after the 2008 economic turmoil. “Everybody was affected by the financial crisis and everyone, including me, was like, ‘F*** these bankers. F*** this system’.”

The immersive theatre production gives members of the audience a Monopoly-style experience, on a small scale, of the avarice.

Devriendt says “a lot of bankers have come” to the show in Belgium.

This is another interactive piece by Ontroerend Goed, which presented Fight Night in 2015 at HKAF.

March 12-17, 20-24, F Hall Studio, Tai Kwun

20. One dancer lock steps with a robot, another turns into a mask  

Acclaimed Taiwanese choreographer, dancer and inventor Huang Yi fantasised about having a robot companion as a child.

As an adult, he made his dream come true with Huang Yi & KUKA, in which he dances a pas de deux with a robot he programmed.

“KUKA is like an extension of myself. When I dance with KUKA it feels as if I am looking in a mirror,” said Huang Yi before a Singapore performance. “So even though KUKA is a robot, watching KUKA dance allows me, for the first time, to stand outside of myself and watch myself dance.”

The piece will be performed on March 1-2 at APA.

From Starting to Cut the Wood at the Black Box Theatre of Kwai Tsing Theatre on March 12-13 is a mix of dance, sound, mask making and philosophy. Artistic director Katia Engel and dancer Ari Ersandi transport the audience to an Indonesian village as he follows the sounds of a wood carver.

“To me, dancing is a process of contemplation,” he told Jakarta-based Sarasvati, an online art magazine. Slowly he becomes the mask, an object that purposefully hides what is behind it – there’s plenty for the audience to contemplate, too.

Advance bookings for 2019 Hong Kong Arts Festival performances are open until 29 Nov, with discounts of up to 15 per cent on offer.