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Letter from Hong Kong: With its shiny new performing arts centre and major annual festival, Wayne Gooding discovers Hong Kong to be a hive of operatic activity, both Eastern and Western.

Hong Kong likely doesn't leap to mind as an opera destination, but if you time your visit right, you can enjoy the things the territory is famous for--the food, the photogenic oceanside vistas, the endlessly fascinating interplay of East and West--along with a vivid program of Chinese and Western opera. There's been a push over the last few years to promote traditional Chinese theatre to local audiences and performances are frequent. Fully staged Western opera is rarer, though still on the classical music calendar every few months.

Last December, for example, Musica Viva staged Puccini's Madama Butterfly (with Americans in the American roles and Asian artists in the Asian); in February, the Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF) presented Wagner's Tannhauser, and in May, Opera Hong Rons? mounted Mozart's Dcm dnvanni (with Canadian sonrano Kathryn Whyte as Donna Anna). Over the same period, the biggest event for Chinese opera enthusiasts was the January opening and first-season launch of the Xiqu Centre, the newly built study and performing facility to promote Chinese traditional theatre (Xiqu) in all its forms.

The month-long HKAF (from mid-February to mid-March) is a high-profile meeting of East and West across music, dance and theatre. Founded in 1973, it is international in its choice of artists and performing companies and early on, began to showcase Western companies. The Canadian Opera Company scored a success at 1995's HKAF with Ertmrtung/Bluebeard's Castle directed by Robert Lepage. This year, Wagner's Tannhauser was presented by Oper Leipzig in a surprisingly straightforward, regietheater staging by Spanish director Calixto Bieito. This was no second-string tour. Leipzig's fall forces were on hand, including the famed Gewandhaus Orchestra, General Director and conductor Ulf Schirmer, the Leipzig Chorus and many of the singers, including tenor Stefan Vinke in the tide role, from the company's original production.

Leipzig wasn't the only big Western company at this year's festival: John Neunieier and his Hamburg Ballet were part of the lineup, as were Marin Alsop and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Jarvi and Japan's NHK Symphony Orchestra. Clearly, generous amounts of funding are available to underwrite such large-scale, jet-setting guest performances, not least the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which heads the roster as "Proud Partner and Festival Opening Sponsor." A holdover from colonial days and still restrictive in its membership (only the wealthy and well-connected need apply), the Jockey Club is now a not-for-profit with a government-granted monopoly on the most lucrative forms of legal gambling--horse racing, overseas soccer and a popular lottery. As a result, it enjoys kudos as both Hong Kong's largest tax payer and its biggest benefactor.

For 2020, the proceeds of the voracious local appetite for wagering will help underwrite a HKAF lineup that already includes the Bavarian State Opera with Canadian director Robert Carsen's staging of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and pianistYefim Bronfman conducted by Andris Nelsons, the Basel Chamber Orchestra with baritone Christian Gerhaher, the Prague Philharmonic Choir and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo.

The opportunity to mix, match and compare Eastern and Western traditions is a unique selling point for Hong Kong as an opera destination. This year's Tannhauser, for example, played backto-back with the workshop of a new experimental Cantonese opera called Pavillion of a Hundred Flowers. Next came a three-act take on a young man's forbidden love for a courtesan called Lady Spring Fragrance. HKAF has always programmed Chinese theatre as part of its line-up--Pavillion was just one opera on this year's roster--but in this genre, the Festival's presentations complement the programs offered year-round by other specialist institutions.

In another part of town, across from a wholesale fruit market in central Kowloon, there is opera at the historic Yau Ma Tei Theatre, the only surviving pre-war cinema in the city restored faithfully to its original 1930 state. There's also opera at the 1983 Ko Shan Theatre in the residential district of Hung Horn on the eastern side of Kowloon which also houses the Cantonese Opera Information and Education Centre. But while these theatres mainly focus on the local opera tradition, the new Xiqu Centre on Kowloon's west side has a broader mission.

For Westerners, coming to terms with Chinese opera involves a steep learning curve, not least because of the language but also due to the sheer complexity of the tradition. Although Chinese opera was well established centuries before Monteverdi wrote Oifeo, what counted as opera--how it was sung and what was expected on the stage--varied greatly from region to region. In the West, most operas are sung in one of a half dozen languages, in relatively few styles. Meanwhile, scholars have identified about 350 distinct variants of traditional theatre that fall under the rubric of Chinese opera. Beijing (or Peking) Opera and Cantonese Opera are probably the best-known forms in the West, though even these are hybrids.

Chinese opera's rich history is showcased at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum in ShaTin where a permanent exhibit in its Cantonese Opera Heritage Hall celebrates the dominant form of opera in the Guangdong region of southern China just north of Hong Kong. The museum lists 11 regional and stylistic influences that contributed to the emergence of the form over the course of centuries. Many regional variants of Chinese opera died out and are known only from historical records, and others are on the endangered list. The Xiqu Centre was built to help preserve the grand tradition of Chinese opera and promote its future development at home and abroad. Fostering new works is part of that mandate.

The Xiqu Centre is the first facility to open in the emerging West Kowloon Cultural District, an ambitious arts-oriented development around the waterfront. It will include a complex of theatres, performing spaces and museums, a two-kilometre waterside trail and 23 hectares of public open space. The Centre's arresting design is inspired by traditional Chinese lanterns. Its white curved walls provide an elegant frame for a three-story facility that includes two theatres, eight rehearsal studios and a seminar hall. Just as Gottfried Semper's Dresden opera house sets art on the highest level by making the audience climb stairs to the auditorium, Xiqu Centre's theatres are also on its highest level. On the street, at the junction of Canton and Austin Roads, an expansive open atrium showcases exhibitions and small-scale performances.

Xiqu's 1073-seat Grand Theatre opened in January with a performance of The Reincarnation of Red Plum, a much-respected classic by playwright Tong Tik-Sang, who was credited with penning 400 operas for stage and film. The performance marked the 60th anniversary of both the works premiere and Tongs death. This was a careful choice since the start of a 60-year cycle in the Chinese lunar calendar is an auspicious harbinger of new beginnings. In the weeks following its opening, the Centre mounted an extensive program to showcase different forms of Chinese opera, and looked forward to hosting the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe in May and Taiwan's GuoGuang Opera Company this August.

Notably, the Shanghai troupe presented a rare, complete performance of Four Dreams in the Camellia Hall, a Chinese opera equivalent to Wagner's Ring. Written by Tang Xianzu, a Ming Dynasty-era contemporary of Shakespeare, this cycle of four works--The Tale of Handan, The Dream Under the Southern Bough, A Pair of Purple Hairpins and The Peony Pavilion--does not tell a single story. Rather, its components are connected by themes of dreams and dreaming that play a decisive role in each work.

It helps for Westerners that Xiqu Centre performances are surtitled in English as well as Chinese. Language is the obvious first hurdle to the enjoyment of opera everywhere in the world, though with Chinese opera, the impediment can arise even for those who speak the language. Chinese opera may be written in a dialect that's incomprehensible to those who don't speak it, or in an archaic form spoken at imperial court centuries ago. It comes as a surprise to learn that Cantonese Opera was only translated and performed in Cantonese dialect, and thereby made more accessible, in the early decades of the 20th century. It also comes as a surprise to learn that the now-ubiquitous system of surtitles in Western opera houses, 'invented' in 1983 for a Canadian Opera Company production of Elektra, has an antecedent in Chinese opera. Older glass-slide projection systems were used to render archaic texts in the contemporary vernacular. Given that the language runs vertically rather than horizontally, they were often projected on the sides of the stage area.

The surtitles certainly helped to follow the plot of Lady Spring Fragrance. With its triangle of courtesan, clean-cut young lover and disapproving father, it has obvious parallels with Verdi's La traviata, although here, with a happy ending. Following the plot, of course, doesn't help to understand the myriad other differences that distinguish Chinese opera. Quite apart from the percussion--heavy instrumentation and singing styles that demand their own definitions of be! canto, details in costuming, makeup, gesture and movement can all be significant to a degree they are not in Western opera. Even the way a singer manipulates the long sleeves of a costume can be a significant visual clue to character and feeling. A Western opera, like Bieito's Tannhauser production at HKAF, was presented in modern-dress, but did not lose anything for that. A modern-dress production of a traditional Chinese opera, on the other hand, is not an option without a major loss of content.

To introduce the complexities of Chinese opera, the Xiqu Centre has an entertaining and instructive 90-minute show in its 200-seat Tea House Theatre. Cantonese Opera and Tea is performed by the Tea House Rising Stars Troupe, the Centre's young artist program for aspiring singers and instrumentalists. The audience is served tea and dim sum treats to savour with a narrated program of instrumental and vocal excerpts that illustrate various facets of Chinese opera. In March, the program included Naamyam, a traditional form of accompanied ballad singing integrated into Cantonese opera. An excerpt from Taking the Head from Gaoping Pass demonstrated archaic-language singing and the high-pitched male voice common for noble martial characters. There was an expression of lovesickness and jealousy in The Purple Hairpin as heartfelt as anything in Puccini, while the passionate encounter between a princess and a general of her country's sworn enemy in Pursuing Her Husband recalled Aida ... and also showcased the young singers' martial-arts moves!

It was an eclectic mix, but visually and aurally compelling. Again, English surtitles helped engagement in the same way they have for Western opera. They provide Western ears with a way to begin to appreciate the complex idiom of Chinese opera, an art form that wears the same human emotions on its voluminous sleeves as readily as anything in the Western canon.

Caption: Hong Kong Arts Centre

Caption: Atrium, Xiqu Centre

Caption: Tea House Theatre, Xiqu Centre
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Publication:Opera Canada
Geographic Code:9HONG
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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