Breathing life into classical works
Hong Kong Arts Festival audiences had special treats of contemporary interpretations of 17th and 20th-century opera masterpieces
Hong Kong was the first foreign country I ever visited back in my primary school years and since the mid-2000s thanks to conferences, festivals and art fairs my visit to the SAR was very frequent. That, of course, was disrupted by the pandemic. Earlier this month I downloaded an application and filled out an online form only to find that both were no longer necessary for entry into “Asia’s Renaissance City”: the border is completely open now. There’s no queue at the immigration and from the flight’s landing time to my arrival in Causeway Bay was only an hour: foreign visitors are much fewer than before.
The annual showcase of international performing arts namely Hong Kong Arts Festival’s (HKAF) 51st edition was back on-site with a new artistic director, and I can restart my streak of attending it. Six hours after my arrival and after having a dim sum lunch in Wan Chai with a Hong Kong theatre critic colleague, I was in Central as UK company Silent Opera’s “Vixen” premiered at Tai Kwun’s Prison Yard and Laundry Steps.
Director and librettist Daisy Evans not only made Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” our contemporary but also set it in Central, and that of course thanks to HKAF’s vision and the local collaborators who made commendable efforts to make this century-old work as relevant as possible to the local audience.
They succeeded indeed as the strong cast, led by captivating soprano Vivian Yau, delivered the English libretto as if it were colloquial dialogue, with English and Chinese surtitles. From the moment she first appeared among us in a bar scene, staged outdoors in the Prison Yard just next to a wall so high that it’s impossible to climb, it’s not difficult for the audience to empathize with her and take her troubles as our own. For a foreign visitor like myself, this performance also asked me to reconsider a significant yet often overlooked social problem—homelessness—in Hong Kong as well as my hometown.
From the outdoors bar scene, set designer Kitty Callister deftly took us inside a tent where Forester’s dining room and kitchen were on a thrust stage. Afterwards, as we walked towards the Laundry Steps, where Vixen’s shelter was, we saw replicas of actual missing person posters. Accompanied live by five-member music ensemble, the performance had high-quality sound as all were mixed together and delivered to us via wireless headphones. In other words, audio-wise for the audience there’s no bad seat in this performance.
The following day I crossed Victoria Bay to Hong Kong Cultural Centre where Handspring Puppet Company’s 2016 revival of their 1998 production of Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses” (“Il Ritorno d’Ulisse”) was staged in the Grand Theatre. If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably because this world leading South African company created, in 2000s, “Tall Horse” and “War Horse” and more recently Little Amal, the 11-feet refugee puppet who “walked” from Syria-Turkey border to Manchester.
At downstage centre throughout the 100-minute performance was the title character in his hospital bed in the middle of the last century in Johannesburg. It’s not simply a reminder but more like a proof that virtue will eventually win over treachery, no matter when and where. One level up and around him in a semi-circle was the music ensemble Ricercar Consort, leaving plenty space for the puppets and opera singers.
It’s a special treat, for both puppet and opera fans of course, to see opera performers helped manipulate the puppet along with puppeteers who, without ever singing it, seemed to know all the libretto too. With this crossover of performing arts disciplines, the work attracted audiences of both and I heard a few children quietly asking their parents some questions during the performance. If this is their first opera experience, then it’s a good sign for the future.
A downside of this unique experience was the venue which was clearly too large for the audience in the rear section to fully enjoy the puppet performance despite the fact that the puppets were almost human-sized. Animation and images were projected onto the back screen but many of them repeated what’s already in the libretto and so it looked as if they’re there only to fill the height of the proscenium frame. While there’s no problem with the sound quality, some audience members might feel that it looked like a classical Italian opera with puppets as well as English and Chinese surtitles, rather than a puppet performance of it.
A few hours prior, I attended a special talk by the company’s co-founders Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, and afterwards a pop-up exhibition “The Making Before ‘The Return’” in the lobby of HKCC, part of which was a replica of the company’s puppet atelier. The two long-time collaborators shared a secret of how to make the puppet come alive—that their puppeteers should always make sure that it breathes at the same rate as theirs. Actually, in the performance I could always see the dying Ulysses breathe even when he wasn’t lighted. That’s another joy of attending HKAF: those who want to know more or delve deeper can attend some of the related talks, workshops, etc., as part of HKAF Plus programme.
I’m not an opera aficionado but thanks to HKAF’s programming I watched two opera productions in one weekend. I wish the Bangkok’s International Festival of Dance and Music, our main presenter of foreign productions of opera, would consider similar approaches in their selection of opera. After all, it’s post-pandemic era and we’re living the New Normal.
The writer wishes to thank HKAF’s Tobie Chan for all assistance.
Photo: (for “Vixen”) Darwin Ng; (for “The Return of Ulysses”) John Hodgkiss and Alfonso Salgueiro