Is The Phantom of the Opera an opera? This question was one of the ways that Philip Eisenbeiss introduced members to the world of opera at a Network & Learn event on 10 January. It turns out that the key definition of opera is that it is all sung, with no spoken dialogue, so The Phantom of the Opera is actually a musical.
The event was organized by WEC and Opera Hong Kong to give members the chance to learn about this complex art form.
Eisenbeiss, who described himself as a “completely failed opera singer,” now writes on the subject with rather more success, including a book on the Italian impresario Domenico Barbaja.
“The operatic voice is very different from a musical voice,” he said. “Opera singers go through years and years of training that continues throughout their careers, and they need to be able to sing for three hours – sometimes longer.”
And it is all done without microphones. “That’s the beauty of opera,” he added. “It’s very difficult.”
The different voice types often correspond to a particular type of character, Eisenbeiss explained. So while the tenors are the good-natured heroes, the baritones are the bad guys, like the seducer Don Giovanni. Opera Hong Kong will be staging this 1787 Mozart opera in May.
The soprano, meanwhile, is usually a young woman who easily falls in love, is naive “and sometimes a bit stupid.” While mezzo-sopranos can be nice characters, they also play less innocent roles like witches.
Carmen, for example, from Bizet’s 1875 opera, is a gypsy who works in a cigarette factory and has several boyfriends – so this role is a mezzo-soprano.
Soprano Colette Lam and baritone Alexander Chen from Opera Hong Kong’s Young Artist Development Programme were on hand to demonstrate these voice types. They performed a duet from Don Giovanni; later Chen sang the Toreador song from Carmen and Lam sang an aria from Gianni Schicchi.
While Mozart was writing in the classical period of 1750 to 1820, later operas often deal with more modern concerns. Puccini’s La Boheme is about the struggle of people living in small apartments they can't afford, Eisenbeiss explained, adding that Puccini's other works have themes that resonate today.
“Gianni Schicchi is about a rich old man who is dying, and his family is trying to get his money – another Hong Kong story,” he joked.
The celebrated tenor Warren Mok – widely regarded as the first Chinese opera singer to achieve global success – also spoke at the event. His interest in opera started when he was in his teens.
“I grew up in Hawaii, and saw my first opera – La Boheme – in Honolulu, of all places,” he explained.
Mok took up opera singing, and was good enough to qualify for a full scholarship to study music.
Opera offers a graduated career path. Young singers start with minor roles and there are no short-cuts to stardom. As Mok described, his early experience was delivering a single line such as: “The dinner is ready, go in now.”
He got his break when he stepped in for a sick tenor to play the Duke in Rigoletto, proving his mettle in a major role. Since then, he has enjoyed a stellar career performing around the world.
Mok is now the Artistic Director of Opera Hong Kong, and he also shared his thoughts on other aspects of opera, like the recent trend for stage sets that depend largely on lighting (he is not a fan of such minimalism.)
Besides its major productions, Opera Hong Kong has a range of outreach programmes, including the Children Chorus. A group of their young singers also performed a number of songs from The Sound of Music at the event.