World premiere of 'Hong Kong Odyssey'
World premiere of 'Hong Kong Odyssey' © Keith Hiro

Now approaching the 20th anniversary of its return to China, Hong Kong has rarely been so politically and culturally polarised. This puts the arts community in a bit of a quandary: should new works highlight Hong Kong’s distinctiveness, or recontextualise the former British territory within a broader Chinese vision?

The Hong Kong Arts Festival has followed both paths, but there’s little doubt which side won out in Hong Kong Odyssey, a festival commission that received its world premiere last weekend. Part western-style cantata, part high-class Chinese variety show, Odyssey featured more than 100 local performers in a pan-stylistic frolic musically rooted in the territory’s literary culture. Some 30 texts from 20 local authors spanned more than 150 years.

Director Helen Lai briskly moved a semi-staged stream of soloists and narrators in front of an onstage orchestra while a vocal ensemble occupied a makeshift “chorus pit” beneath. (Perhaps remedying bad sightlines, conductor Lio Kuokman led the instrumental forces — the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble, augmented by a handful of traditional instrumentalists — while John Winzenburg led Cantoria Hong Kong in the pit.) Video projections unfolded on a tripartite screen above the fray, rather like a modern high-definition Chinese scroll painting.

Composer Chan Hing-yan, who assembled most the evening’s texts, also provided a large part of the music, which was never less than listenable but seldom rose beyond. More stimulating were settings by younger composers, including Phoebus Lee’s lush juxtaposition of English and Chinese texts in Under the Stars the Slumbering Dragon, Daniel Lo’s musical theatre-ish evocation of 1950s café culture in Café CAN DO, and Charles Kwong’s Fin de Siècle Songs, a trio of Tiananmen-inspired settings from 1989.

Singing was predominantly in Cantonese with occasional dips into English and Mandarin, ensuring that at any point — especially given that performances were often unintelligible even to native speakers — a portion of the audience needed translation. One questions the wisdom of passing out unwieldy programme books in a darkened hall, however, when projections could have dispensed the texts far more efficiently.

Odyssey presented a fine panorama of Hong Kong’s distinctiveness, but it did little to bring its communities together.

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