Popera for the masses

For those who are not classical music fans, opera can seem esoteric or even dull, but the Jockey Club New Art Power show When Mozart Meets Da Ponte, performed by the Bel Canto Singers, is sure to shatter your preconceived notions.

“There’s always a concept that opera is a little bit far from real life,” said David Quah, Bel Canto Singers’ music director, who has been actively promoting the popularization of classic opera.

Yet the multi-award-winning tenor said the idea of creating this show was started as a way of teasing his children.

“I was trying to influence my children and play them the songs I listen to, but my son came to me saying: ‘Daddy, the songs you’re playing are old,'” Quah said.

“That gave me the idea of rearranging songs, because after all, a good song ought to have a good melody.”

Featuring 22 much loved songs from three extraordinary masterpieces, Cosi fan Tutte, Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni – all by the most famous duo in the classical opera history: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte – the show offers an original Cantonese story sung in Italian.

The story begins with Da Ponte inviting Mozart home to look at his newly purchased piano. Mozart takes Figaro with him, and they encounter the young housekeeper and her visiting sister. The story then continues with music rearranged by Quah to different styles, including pop, rock, jazz, a capella and even beatboxing.

Collision is the theme of the show, said Quah. For him, though, as the show’s director, scriptwriter and music arranger, playing Da Ponte has come in handy. Yet for the cast of younger singers who are all classically trained, there are a lot of things to adjust to.

Baritone Albert Lim, who plays Figaro, describes the experience as “fun and exciting.”

The cast had to study the music again, since the melodies were entirely different. Although Quah insisted the vocal parts remain in the classical style, Lim said the singers had to make some adjustments in their singing, such as the narration and color of the voice.

“The most important thing is we are willing to let go of established ideas and bias and work together to overcome the hurdles along the way,” said Quah.

A new cast member that may surprises jazz and classical music fans is Bowen Li, a famous young jazz pianist, who will play Mozart.

This is also the first time Li will be doing more than just playing the piano on the stage.

In addition, a live band will replace the programmed music used in 2017, the first time the show was performed in Hong Kong. Instead of hiding in the orchestra pit, the band has been moved directly onto the stage, offering a refreshing change.

The collision of ideas with the audience also led to several changes in the show, as Quah said they finetuned certain details after each performance based on audience feedback.

What impressed him most was the performance in Shanghai last year. At that event, he hadn’t expected that many audience members would join the after-show talk.

“They were straightforward about what they liked and what parts of the story they found farfetched,” said Quah, adding that a professional scriptwriter has also joined to adjust the story for performances in Hong Kong this year.

Calling the show “pop-opera,” Quah said he wants to attract audiences with no previous exposure to classical opera by packaging classical music in a popular way.

Although he admitted that audiences may not necessarily understand classical music through the show, Quah said that as long as an audience finds a particular song attractive and searches for it, then he has achieved his goal.

Sadly, the live performance, scheduled for September 4 and 5 at The Box, Freespace, has been canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic and will instead will be streamed for free online. More information will be updated on JCNAP’s website and Facebook page.

Quah and the cast remain positive about the change.

“The cameras will be closer than the audience, so everything has to be more finetuned,” Quah said, committing to a quality performance. “I’m glad that we can still do the show.”

(This article was published at The Standard on August 21, 2020: Weekend Glitz: Popera for the masses )

200821 Popera for the masses

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