Wong Sze Ma’s My Boy the Musical (飛行棋)

Date: August 8, 2014
Location: Kwai Tsing Theatre, Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Children’s Musical Theatre
Millennium Youth Orchestra

The musical is based on the comics and the life of the late Mr. Wong Sze Ma (王司馬), the Charles Schulz of Hong Kong’s world of illustration. Wong’s comics often depict the real life events of himself and his family. The musical, penned by playwright and lyricist Armando Lai (韋然), was borne out of an exchange between Lai and Wong’s siblings during a Macau exhibition of Wong’s works in 2013. Soon after the exhibition, producer and art educator Justine Woo (胡寶秀), co-founder of the Hong Kong Children’s Musical Theatre, contacted Lai and told him that they should, together with composer Frankie Ho, work on a piece based on Wong’s works. One thing led to the other, and six months later the script and score were completed.

A bulk of the musical alludes to the story of Niuzai (牛仔) and his family — they are characters in Wong’s eponymous four-panel comic strip published in Hong Kong in the 70s and early 80s. During that period, Hong Kong was recovering nicely from a past decade of natural disasters and political turmoil. Economically, the British colony was reinventing itself from an aging manufacturing base to a vibrant financial center. Optimism ran high, and citizens hoisted highly and held dear a can-do spirit. A lot of those sentiments is reflected in Lai’s lyrics:

“來給你繪幅漫畫 / 齊步行到未來 / 人生裡的歡樂與喜 / 會交替恨與淚 / 從不怕追蹤夢想 / 如未來有未來 / 給昨天的孩子 / 給今天的孩子 / 給明天的孩子”

“Let me draw you a comic / together we walk to the future / Life is full of happiness and joy / but also with scorn and tears / Fear not to reach for your dreams / If future has a future / let that be given to yesterday’s child / to today’s child / to tomorrow’s child” (Niuzai’s dad, to Niuzai)

Niuzai and his family, which are cartoon reflections of Wong’s son and his own family, represent a typical family of that era: guardedly confident of a promising future and happy to be living in the moment. Armando Lai’s lyrics provide a nice microcosm of that spirit of the yesteryear, and present a good contrast between then and now, where that sentiment was long lost under a thick cloud of social vitriol and political pessimism. Dramatically, Lai weaves two stories, one about Niuzai’s family in the comic strip and another about Wong’s family, together. Both stories have their tender moments of parent-child relationship, oozing plenty of parental love and a spring of youth. But in the latter, some moments, whether they be about manhood bonding through binge drinking, or about death and loss, tend to breach the limits of how far a director can go in a family-friendly musical where plenty of pre-teen kids attend.

The more serious topic probably aims to please the parents in the audience who grew up likening themselves to Niuzai’s parents, but could be too heavy for kids. True, even Wong’s comics sometimes weave these disparate topics together, but Wong did it with grounded realism inside four panels rather than through the sort of emphatic, animated dramatization of musical theater. Furthermore, ending the evening with dark chromatic music and death in the musical coda left a strange taste in the mouths of an audience expecting something more upbeat in a family-oriented evening. Wong would probably never drag out a death over a few minutes of dark music in a gloomy stage, even if given a stage to do so. The resulting effort tried to appease both adolescence and grown-ups, but fell somewhat short. Nevertheless, it was noteworthy that Frankie Ho’s music was well-orchestrated and truthful to musical theater, while Jennifer Ho (何嘉盈) conducted the Millennium Youth Orchestra with great attentiveness and courtesy.

Wong Sze Ma's My Boy the Musical.

Wong Sze Ma’s My Boy the Musical.

Chrysanthemum (金葉菊)

Date: August 2, 2014
Location: Ko Shan Theatre, Hong Kong.

Troupe: Haifeng Baizi Opera Troupe of Guangdong (廣東海豐縣白字戲劇團)

Hailufeng Baizi (海陸豐白字戲) is a regional operatic art form still loved by local folks along the northeastern coast of Guangdong Province. Its origins can be traced back to late Yuan/early Ming Dynasty, when dialectic singing theatre from the neighboring Fujian Province started to make its way down the coast. Unlike other flavors of Chinese operas, where the libretto’s language often adheres to the prevailing official parlance of the time, Baizi is literalized from local speak and influenced by folk music. The regionalization of this art form makes it quite different from the body of work descending from and influenced by Beijing Opera/Kunqu. However, because of the compartmentalized nature of the region’s social culture, Baizi has never found a broad audience. In face of today’s onslaught of media and entertainment, the demand for Baizi’s artistry has waned in recent years.

Baizi proliferated at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and its repertoire has realigned accordingly. After a brief extinction towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, it resurrected, and one of the first operas to regain prominence on stage was Chrysanthemum (金葉菊), a story about justice and revenge. The story tells of a duke named Ma Yinglong (馬應龍) who had to fight an uphill battle against the treasonous instincts of Emperor Wanli’s relatives. Lin Tianyi (林天義), a loyal servant of a good general slain by the Emperor’s treasonous relative, entered the service of the treasonous camp a la Infernal Affairs to unearth evidence of treason. The daughter of the good general, Lin Yuejiao (林月嬌), after many years of banishment, reconnected with servant Lin and, together with Ma, eventually managed to foil the treachery of the bad camp, though not without significant loss of lives. Yu Jincheng (余錦程), Director of the Troupe, impressed in the role of Ma with clean delivery of his lines and a commanding stage presence – in a role that requires plenty of both. As the servant Lin, Yu Haiping (余海平), Deputy Director of the Troupe, portrayed one of unrelenting loyalty. Ma Sixiang (馬四香) had a good evening as daughter Lin: singing with grace and performing with a glowing stage presence. The letdown came mainly from Yu Ronggui (余榮貴)’s Emperor, who could not present prestige and stature, even for a diminished and severely flawed character. The production also exposed the downside of an art form untainted with the strict regimen of Beijing Opera/Kunqu: tables and chairs were set too close together (the Emperor had to use his legs to slide the chair away from the table before he could squeeze in – a serious faux pas in Chinese operatic arts). Various character actors (including imperial guards) looked like extras who have not had enough rehearsals and seemed dazzled and confused on stage. Dialectic differences and cultural compartmentalization may have contributed to the art form’s relative obscurity, but a lax approach to staging and discipline could also be non-trivial contributors.

For all of Baizi’s long history and cultural significance, it needs and deserves preservation. It’s up to those on stage and the patronage network off it to ensure its survival. Nevertheless, Hong Kong audiences should be glad that their Government, with its generous financial support, was at least willing to take up its share of the bargain.

Chrysanthemum, by Haifeng Baizi Opera Troupe of Guangdong. Yu Ronggui (left) as Emperor, and Yu Jincheng (right) as Ma.

Chrysanthemum, by Haifeng Baizi Opera Troupe of Guangdong. Yu Ronggui (left) as Emperor, and Yu Jincheng (right) as Ma. Photo Credit: Chinese Opera Festival/LCSD.

Chrysanthemum (金葉菊).

Chrysanthemum (金葉菊).

KaJeng Wong, Nancy Loo, Music Lab

Date: August 4, 2014
Location: City Hall, Hong Kong.

Piano (Mussorgsky-Naoumoff): KaJeng Wong
Piano (Gershwin): Nancy Loo
Orchestra: The Music Lab Orchestra
Conductor: Wilson Ng

This evening program presented Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, followed by Emile Naoumoff’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Visual art works by various local artists, projected onto a gigantic screen above the orchestra, accompanied each musical piece.

Little was said about the premise of the visual art presentation, other than: (1) that the presentation would be related to Hong Kong and (2) that it would co-exist with music on stage. The program notes offered short paragraphs from some of the contributing visual artists, but no overarching explanation of the concept. Even KaJeng Wong, the prodigious 24-year-old and brainchild of the evening’s program, was at loss with words. In between the Debussy and the Ravel, Wong appeared on stage to announce that technicians needed some time to fix a projection problem. In the meantime, he tried unconvincingly to explain his concept. On the spur of the moment, Wong also initiated a makeshift Q&A with various musicians, asking them what they felt about the performance. Violist Samuel Pang, Wong’s childhood classmate, offered a partial bailout by eloquently but somewhat aimlessly stating the obvious — that here was a concert with images of Hong Kong and made by people who grew up in Hong Kong.

The busy streets of Hong Kong, captured in a series of time-lapse photo tableaux by photographer Cheung Chi Wai (張志偉), echoed some of Gershwin’s spirit of optimism in the kaleidoscope of a buzzing city. The amount of work was tedious and immensely time-consuming. As an artwork on its own, Cheung’s product carried a lot of substance and story. Yet when placed next to the music, the speed and color of the tableaux seemed unready to match up with the undulating dynamism of the composition’s tempi and tonal colors.

Nevertheless, better explanations could be found, after the concert, on the web. Oychir (愛卡), the artist responsible for the visual art during the Ravel, explained in her blog that during her creative period, her mind wandered when trying to understand the music, as if lost in space and forever banished from Earth: “感覺自己捉不到那歌,越畫越遠,精神迷路,迷到上太空,回不到地球”. Even Oychir herself blogged about being surprised to hear that the organizers were quite satisfied with her work – albeit in a tone of one who was more curiously puzzled than genuinely satisfied with her output, not necessarily in and of itself but specifically in its relation to this musical concert. In the end, the experimentation juxtaposing live music with visual art failed to impress with real consequence, even though Wong and his team should be commended for daring to try something different in a city where artistic experimentation, especially in respect of classical music, runs dry.

The audio portion of the concert was more refined and interesting. The Music Lab Orchestra, an ensemble effort loosely pieced together with music students and semi-pros, displayed a discernible level of concentration and musicianship rarely found in amateur orchestras. Their balance was elegant, and sections blended en tutti with plenty of credit going to vibrant and attentive conductor Wilson Ng, who was able to conduct most of the evening’s program from memory.

Nancy Loo, Wong’s childhood piano teacher and possibly the most revered piano teacher in Hong Kong in half a century, survived the Gershwin without making much of an impactful impression. To be sure, in the lighter legato passages, Loo’s playing was masterful and expansive: she would occasionally temper her pace just enough to offer a more deeply-nuanced, personal touch. But in Gershwin’s starker, faster passages, her fingers weighed on her momentum and interpretation, constricting her output to one of overworked caution. At times, Loo sounded and looked as if she was trying in vain to reach a pace and dynamic she would expect of herself but could not. Ng, standing at her side and often looking over her playing, valiantly kept the piano in synchronization with that of the orchestra. Loo most certainly has played the piece many times over her long and illustrious career as concert pianist and educator, but at least in this particular evening, she managed to show only what seemed to be short glimpses of her former self.

By contrast, KaJeng Wong displayed in the Mussorgsky-Naoumoff piece the sort of pace, power, and determination that were equally desired in Loo’s playing. When Wong dropped his first few chords, all the sound previously carpeted under the Steinway reemerged with flair and power. A former student of the arranging composer, Wong was in his typical self, running through the piano cadenzas with rapid pace and effusing bold confidence not usually seen in pianist of his age. The Mussorgsky-Naoumoff is usually listed as a concerto, but the composition is more akin to a symphonic duet between an orchestra and a piano where much of the musical drama occurs not in unison but via an ebb and flow of call and response. In that respect, the effort between Wong and Ng was a rather satisfying one.