A powerful emotional experience is in store for Hong Kong audiences with the Asian premiere of an acclaimed Nordic opera, regardless of safety concerns among the visiting Scandinavian musicians, the opera’s composer says.
Adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1978 film, Autumn Sonata is a two-act work commissioned by the Finnish National Opera; it premiered in Helsinki 2017 after Sebastian Fagerlund spent two and a half years composing it.
The premiere comes at a time of political turmoil in the city sparked by the now-abandoned extradition law, which could have allowed criminal suspects to be transferred to mainland China for trial.
“For me it is a very special thing to perform an opera in a Scandinavian language in such a great city as Hong Kong,” the Finn composer tells the Post from Helsinki shortly after the opera’s second performance by the Malmö Opera in Sweden, the troupe that will perform three shows at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre on 19-21 October to kick off this year’s World Cultures Festival under the theme “The Nordics”.
“[The Malmö performance] hit the nerve of the audience and the reaction was breathtaking. It was an absolute dream cast – the lead soloists, chorus, and the conductor – and we are all looking forward to performing for a Hong Kong audience, which is a great honour for us as it will be the first time we take the work outside Scandinavia,” the 46-year-old Finn adds.
Performed in Swedish, the opera recounts the love-hate relationship between a mother, an acclaimed pianist, and her two adult daughters, who suffer from great trauma after their mother’s long absences because of her career. Issues raised in the opera, such as human choice, hidden conflicts, the price of success and the possibility of reconciliation and forgiveness, are all too familiar to a city suffering from the trauma of violence and unrest since June.
“Yes, it’s been in the media and it seems it’s been going on for quite some time. Naturally there’s concern whether it will escalate but this is of course a larger issue than our performance. I have been busy with the production here and really have not had time to think ahead to October yet. But it’s been on my mind,” Fagerlund says.
Performers, such as the 40 chorus members of the Malmö Opera, have been focused on the performance but are aware of the state of affairs in Hong Kong.
Alex Cheung Kwok-wai, the Festival’s senior manager, said he received an inquiry from the Malmö Opera in August concerning the situation.
“I addressed their concerns and said that the protests are confined to certain areas and that the opera would open the festival as planned. They replied and said they very much look forward to the Hong Kong tour next month,” he says.
Logistics for the production, Cheung continues, are under way, including costumes for five soloists and 40 choristers, stage design, translation for English and Chinese surtitles, music scores for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and so on.
“We have put in a lot into this production since the decision was made last year, so there is no Plan B at present and we will do everything we can until the curtain goes up,” he says, adding the opera production takes up about a quarter of the HK$20 million (US$2.55 million) programme budget for the biennial festival organised by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and that all events will proceed as scheduled.
As for the composer, the focus is on the Asian premiere, and some reflections the opera might offer for a city he visited in 2007, finding it “very vibrant and interesting.”
“At this point, the production team sees no reason for a cancellation [of the Hong Kong tour], and I hope it will offer the audiences a very strong emotional and a humane operatic experience through this opera,” the composer says.
Though he wrote earlier that “I am very interested in the parallels this [opera] may have in the real world”, he says the Hong Kong situation is beyond comparison.
“To be frank, I can’t make any comparison [between the opera and Hong Kong] because that’s not what I had in mind when composing the piece, nor am I familiar with the detailed background of the situation there,” he says.
He adds there are themes in the story such as longing for love and acceptance, misunderstanding through miscommunication, that are “timeless and relevant regardless of one’s background and life experience”.
“If audiences get something from the opera that they can relate to, I would call it a success and I have done my job as a composer,” Fagerlund says.