When the composer Eugene Birman moved from the UK to Hong Kong two years ago, he was shocked to discover a city suffering from persistent pollution and smog, rather than the more idyllic and clean modern urban environment that he had imagined.
That inspired Aria, which — despite self-imposed artistic constraints, local political upheavals and the global disruption of coronavirus — opened last week in Hong Kong as one of the world’s first pandemic-proof operas. It combines music, installation art and big data to reflect on environmental concerns.
“They say manufacturing takes place elsewhere, in Guangdong province in China, but Hong Kong has to get its energy, water and food from somewhere,” he says. “It exports the problem. You realise there’s a cost to being a modern city that we don’t see until it comes back over the border.”
Birman teamed up with Kingsley Ng, a Hong Kong-Canadian artist who had worked on bold projects including After the Deluge, an installation in the city’s giant underground storm water storage tank, and Twenty Five Minutes Older, a conceptual artwork inside a tram which was taken to Art Basel.
Aria is an 80-minute combined opera and installation that is distinctive in a number of ways. The audience for each performance is limited to 20 people, who do not sit in an auditorium but walk through different settings in the city’s Forsgate Conservatory.
They are ushered by dancers with lanterns through a primeval forest ecosystem to a post-climate-collapse desert and then to a contemporary podium, accompanied by projections of social media reactions to pollution as well as live singing from the Hong Kong Children’s Choir and holograms of Denmark’s Theatre of Voices ensemble.
We didn’t want negativity — it’s better to highlight, dramatise, let people make their own decisions
From the start, the two artists, working with Prof Johnny Poon at Hong Kong Baptist University and colleagues from the computer science department in a wider project called Space to Breathe, drew on two intertwined ideas: interactivity and sustainability. These ultimately saved the production while so many others across the world have been cancelled due to Covid-19.
“We wanted to experiment with interactive formats,” says Birman. “You normally sit, and are a spectator: you see a set on a stage and are forbidden from entering it. It’s almost a taboo in opera or music to let the audience in on the creation.” The creators divided the roofed Forsgate Conservatory into segments through which audiences promenade, allowing them to linger, listen and observe. Ng likens it to a sushi conveyor belt.
Working around the constraints of the conservatory meant using no traditional stage or scenery. That provided a link to the theme of sustainability. “I wanted to do a project about the environment that didn’t itself contribute negatively to the environment,” says Birman. “A lot of others that do are horrendously wasteful.”
The composer has himself frequently addressed sensitive themes in unusual settings in his work, from climate change, inequality and finance in State of the Union, Nostra Cosa on the financial crisis and No. 289, written for “50 voices and one megaphone” about and performed on the disputed border between Estonia and Russia.
But he argues that any underlying political message should be subtle. “We didn’t want negativity — it’s better to highlight, dramatise, let people make their own decisions,” he says. “That’s more effective than blame: go home and think about it.”
Aria is a reference to both music and air. The artists worked with computer scientists to analyse comments made on social media about air pollution in Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland to inform the libretto and to project during the performance. They developed an algorithm that distorts the soundtrack to reflect the local air pollution data.
They also worked with the Hong Kong Children’s Choir, asking the children to contribute their own views of pollution. “In opera, children are being used increasingly because a child on the stage means showing someone with innocence and a future, but they have little input into how the future is being created,” says Birman. “We didn’t want to force them to speak others’ words.”
Coronavirus delayed the launch by several months and restricted the audience size. The singers had to use masks, reinforcing the theme of breathlessness. Travel restrictions meant that instead of flying in the Theatre of Voices from Denmark, they were recorded and the image projected with hologram technology on to a jet of water.
While the Hong Kong government covered the estimated £220,000 costs and made tickets available free of charge, Aria has something in common with much opera in its exclusivity. The limited places were snapped up within minutes of release, as residents sought new cultural experiences after months of demonstrations and controls on public events driven by the virus.
But Birman argues that a compensating advantage of the final version is that much of the performance is now “pre-packed”, with the holograms pre-recorded and touring versions likely to cost less than £100,000. The logistical challenges and carbon emissions of flying in the Theatre of Voices and props have been eliminated.
Organisers need simply to recruit local children’s choirs and feed in the new location’s air pollution data to modify the projections and music. Several festivals around the world including Manchester International Festival are already in discussions to present their own versions of Aria, and a virtual reality version will be released later this year. The result will be an evolving, recyclable opera for the new era.