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Friday, December 18, 2015, 09:37

A Verdi oasis in the cultural desert

By Peter Gordon
A Verdi oasis in the cultural desert

Azucena (mezzo-soprano Robynne Redmon, center) singing “Stride la vampa”. (photo / Titan Lam)

Western opera is not usually known for feats of prowess, nor is Hong Kong a place one would expect them to take place. Yet Mexican tenor Luís Chapa was called upon to sing all four performances of last weekend’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, when his colleague became indisposed. Singing a full opera three times in four days is the vocal equivalent of pitching and winning two doubleheaders back-to-back or, for non-baseball fans, like playing the best-of-five-set final-16, quarters, semis and finals of a tennis tournament all in a long weekend. Chapa, who sang with aplomb throughout, deserved the enthusiastic applause he received from the full houses at the Hong Kong City Hall.

If Hong Kong is in fact the cultural desert it is sometimes accused of being, it is at least liberally dotted with oases. One particularly verdant oasis is the annual opera produced by Musica Viva, the local company established and run by the venerable Dr Lo Kingman.

Although its roots go back decades, Musica Viva is, as these things go, a new company dating from just 2008. It has strengthened to the point where many cities around the world would surely be pleased to have performances as competent and moving as these. Solid performances with a dash of brio is a challenging enough target; when a local company achieves it while simultaneously providing opportunities for young local artists — almost 200 of which were engaged for this production — the applause is well-earned.

The production’s two multinational casts combined local singers with those from the United States, Mexico, South Korea and China; the chemistry between the singers, orchestra, chorus and dancers was evident.

Musica Viva may be relatively recent, but Lo himself is an institution. Awarded a scholarship to study in Italy by the Italian government at the end of the 1950s, he has been producing (and writing) opera ever since — not just in Hong Kong, but the world over, in a career that has overlapped with great singers, including Franco Corelli and Renata Tebaldi, that the rest of us only know from recordings and videos.

An ear and eye for talent has allowed Lo to snag singers like Marina Costa-Jackson, an exciting young soprano with a wonderful voice and an arresting stage presence, who was making her Asian debut. Costa-Jackson is the 2015 winner of the Metropolitan National Opera Auditions and, if history is any guide, will be singing at the Met itself in the not too distant future. How many times have Hong Kong audiences been able to say they got to hear someone first?

In addition to the eminently newsworthy Costa-Jackson and Chapa, “Il Trovatore” also featured local resident baritone Brian Montgomery who sang at New York’s Metropolitan Opera earlier this year, Vienna-resident Chinese soprano Song Yuanming in her second outing with the company. Conductor Lio Kuok-man — Musica Viva’s musical director — has, among other accolades, been picked up by the Philadelphia Orchestra as assistant conductor. Who says Hong Kong can’t produce artists? This is exactly what regional companies are supposed to do: provide opportunities for talent to prove itself.

“Il Trovatore”, produced by Musica Viva, presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and supported by the Arts Development Council, closed out the Consulate-General of Italy’s inaugural “Bellissima Italia” cultural festival.

A Verdi oasis in the cultural desert

Manrico (tenor Luis Chapa, left) prevents Count di Luna (baritone Michael Corvino) from abducting Leonora (soprano Marina Costa Jackson, right). (photo / Silver Fox @ Musica Viva)

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