ART: STRIPPING IT DOWN
More than Musical founder Rumiko Hasegawa on her quest to bring opera to the masses.
More than Musical founder Rumiko Hasegawa on her quest to bring opera to the masses
Born and raised in Tokyo, Rumiko Hasegawa grew up without many musical pretensions. “In fact, my mother wasn’t musically inclined at all,” she says. “Whenever she sang a lullaby, my father would go, ‘uh-oh, let’s go get a record player!’.”
While Hasegawa’s traditional Asian upbringing ensured the regulation piano lessons, she admits tickling the ivories was far from her favourite activity as a youngster – it wasn’t until years later, with a daughter of her own, did she pick up the instrument again.
After graduation she secured a job with Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, eventually making partner. However, the high-powered lifestyle turned out to be a conduit to discovering a lifelong love for opera.
“This friend and I were both working crazy long hours,” Hasegawa recalls. “Out of the blue, she told me, ‘Rumiko, we must do something else with our lives! Let’s go sing some arias!’ I thought she’d gone nuts at the time.” But the friend persisted, voices lessons followed, and Hasegawa discovered that she was a soprano.
“Actually it was an accident. I was singing O Mio Babbino Caro, and I couldn’t hit some of the high notes, so I shut myself in the walk-in
closet to practice. And then suddenly, I did it.” Her husband, who happened to be passing by outside, was justifiably baffled.
Hasegawa’s love of opera was piqued further in 2009, when she accompanied her husband to a performance of La Bohème; Puccini’s most staged work, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
“When Mimi [the ill-fated seamstress] succumbed to her illness, and the music died down, that was the moment when I started to cry. It was such a magical moment and that feeling never left me,” Hasegawa recalls. “I wanted to share that moment. I don’t want people to see opera as something belonging only to the elite; at the end of the day, opera is [a form of ] human drama and everyone should be able to relate to it.”
In 2012, at the height of her career at the Goldman Sachs, she announced her exit. Currently vicechairman at real estate investment company The Manhasset Bay Group, Hasegawa hasn’t fully bid farewell to the industry, but she is also channelling her energies elsewhere.
In 2016, Hasegawa and Lucy Choi – who, naturally, met at a Hong Kong Opera performance – came together to found More than Musical (MTM), a registered charity with ambitions of bringing the traditional art form to the masses.
La Traviata will be MTM’S kick-off event this month, at Artistree on June 17 and 18. MTM’S adaptation is savagely trimmed, from around four hours to a sweet 90 minutes, to appeal to a wider crowd. “People still go to the cinema; I can’t see why they wouldn’t spare the same amount of time to go watch an opera,” Hasegawa reasons.
The misnomer – ‘More than Musical’ rather than ‘More than Opera’ – is intentional.
“What do people thinking of when you say opera? Something abstract,” says Hasegawa. But every time a Broadway musical comes to Hong Kong, it always gets sold out!”
“WHEN MIMI SUCCUMBED TO HER ILLNESS, AND THE MUSIC DIED DOWN, THAT WAS THE MOMENT WHEN I STARTED TO CRY. IT WAS SUCH A MAGICAL MOMENT AND THAT FEELING NEVER LEFT ME”
– Rumiko Hasegawa
Red curtains have been swapped for a pared-down ‘white box’ format in the new Artistree. The new space by Swire Properties – the developer’s answer to the rising public interest in performing arts – may be noticeably smaller than its former 20,000-square-foot location in Cornwall House, but is still a sizable 7,000 sq ft. Hasegawa highlights the venue’s state-of-the-art PA system, which allows for superior acoustics.
The minimalist approach will no doubt ruffle feathers in conservative corners, but for Hasegawa, it is a risk worth taking. “With everything you do in life, you’re bound to be offending someone, somewhere,” she shrugs nonchalantly.
Then again, MTM is no loner in a world where many are attempting to wrangle opera from its elitist and stuffy image.
“I WAS SINGING O MIO BABBINO CARO, AND I COULDN’T HIT SOME OF THE HIGH NOTES, SO I SHUT MYSELF IN THE CLOSET TO PRACTICE. AND THEN SUDDENLY, I DID IT”
– Rumiko Hasegawa
For Hasegawa, direct inspiration for MTM came from Loftopera, the Brooklyn-based opera company that combines a winning formula of US$30 tickets, unconventional venues, young casts and a lax dress code – you can also drink beer throughout performances.
“During my last visit to New York, I rang these guys up and we had a chat. It was great,” Hasegawa says. “At the end of the day, it’s about making opera accessible to all.” As part of Artistree’s opening programme, La Traviatia will be offered free of charge the public – though all tickets have already been snapped up at time of writing.
Yet, if the short lifespans of many smaller theatrical troupes is to serve as counsel, the most challenging part of running an opera company isn’t the act of setting it up, but of making it sustainable.
And that’s perhaps where Hasegawa’s pragmatic side – honed from years of working in the investment banking industry – comes in.
Hasegawa is in negotiation with a venue in Central for MTM’S second production, the equally tragic Madamabutterfly, in December; the hunt for a longterm venue partner is also in the works – “so we could strategise together”. While MTM will kick off its first year with two shows, the company hopes to expand to be staging double this number in five years’ time. MTM is clearly determined to bring opera to a new audience in the city, and is hoping for as much exposure as possible in the coming months. As Hasegawa reasons, “If we want to truly become a part of people’s lifestyle, we need to become more visible.”
01 More than Musical's launch party in 2016 gave opera fans a glimpse of what to expect at upcoming performances. 01
02 Rumiko Hasegawa channels Adriana Lecouvreur at a Opera Hong Kong performance.