Who says opera’s boring? Hong Kong music enthusiast aims to stage classics with a fun and modern twist
Co-founder of non-profit group that makes genre more accessible champions human connection of the theatre experience
Tell Hong Kong opera enthusiast Lucy Choi Ting-ting that her beloved genre of the performing arts belongs only to the rich and privileged, and expect to face down a vehement assertion to the contrary.
Choi, co-founder of More Than Musical, a local non-profit group established in 2016 to make opera more accessible, champions the “human connection” of the experience, no matter how complex or difficult to understand a work may seem.
“What’s so special about it is that we use music and human voice to express emotions and that is something that cannot be achieved by words alone,” she says.
In this regard, Choi sees parallels between opera and wine.
“It’s something that’s been filtered down in history, only because it’s good,” she explains. “Any classical opera music you hear today was written many years ago, for many years to come, to be passed down for generations to come.”
Choi’s love of music ignited when she was 10 years old, and by her second year in college, what was an early interest blossomed into a deep and abiding passion.
A piano student, she was forced to stop playing the instrument due to an arm injury.
“The only option I had at the time was to start singing in order to graduate,” she recalls.
As for the moment she fell in love with opera, that is a memory she describes fondly.
“It was like having the musical instrument inside my body and I experienced my voice changing by the month. I was amazed by the improvements I made.”
But she is aware that not everyone shares her ardour.
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In her first encounter with opera, Choi remembers sitting among the highest seats of the theatre, the singers’ voices coming through “so crystal clear” that it was “heavenly”.
The experience held “an unparalleled power” over her.
Yet the magic was broken when she realised the venue was filled with “grey-haired people”.
“At that moment I had this thought,” she says. “Would there be a future audience for western opera after these people are gone?”
It was then that Choi grew for a time less optimistic about the future of western opera in Hong Kong.
But more than a decade later, More Than Musical strives to pitch the genre as something relevant and contemporary to the city’s broad and diverse community. The non-profit group presents works in a manner that is compact, intimate and modern.
“Our productions focus on critical scenes, highlighting the drama and power of sensational arias in a more intimate venue without traditional stagings to create an unforgettable opera experience for the general public,” Choi says.
More Than Musical comprises avid opera fans who are equally aware of the allure of full-scale opera productions and their drawbacks. Its productions eschew concert hall formality to lure wider audiences who might be attracted to the potent music.
Choi believes that creating a familiar environment for opera attendees matters, even if it means removing a traditional stage to build a sense of intimacy and “intensify” the atmosphere.
“Without the distance, singers are just steps away from you, singing so powerfully,” she says. “That is a very different experience.”
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The group also aims to present condensed versions of classical operas, while staying faithful to the original narratives.
“People don’t want to invest three or four hours of their time to see an opera, and most are intimidated by the theatre setting,” she says. “We’ve integrated them into commercial movie lengths as well as modernised our characters.”
In More Than Musical’s production of La Traviata, for example, Choi claims the story would have been long forgotten had it been packaged in its original setting. Hence the twist.
Whereas the source material sees characters writing letters, in this performance they exchange text messages.
“When they pull out their mobile phones, people start to laugh,” she says. “They use laptops, too. And that is real life.”
In addition, in its bid to grow its audience, More than Musical offers dinner with its shows.
Choi says that by setting up an open bar before, during and after the performances, the group makes clear that an opera outing “can be vibrant and fun” as well as an artistically enriching experience.
With two performances under its belt since its inception, the group is now planning its third show, which is expected to be staged later this year.