ART: STRIP­PING IT DOWN

More than Mu­si­cal founder Ru­miko Hasegawa on her quest to bring opera to the masses.

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - STORY CHRISTIE LEE

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

02 Ru­miko Hasegawa chan­nels Adri­ana Le­cou­vreur at a Opera Hong Kong per­for­mance.

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