Bel Canto Singers

A 90-minute Crash Course to Mozart’s Opera

Imagine Mozart entering the concert hall and discover the electric guitar, the drum set and the piano on the stage, and out comes his hit tunes with an unexpected twist. Would he be offended, thrilled or puzzled by what is going on? Or perhaps he would fall in love with the new-found electric guitar and called himself a fan of jazz?

Mozart might not have time travel skills, but his music lives on. If you happen to run into Mozart in jeans and sneakers in the concert hall, would you like to have a chat with him too?

Text: Venus Lam
Translation: Jennifer To
Photos: Daniel Ho

When Mozart Meets Da Ponte revisits Mozart’s trilogy of Cosi fan tutte, Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni with innovative arrangements. “Some friends saw it as thumbing our noses at Mozart, some thought the tunes pleasant and easy listening, but there were also others who found it difficult as it was sung in Italian.” Perhaps it is no coincidence that Quah made his debut as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni and has since became a connoisseur of Mozart’s operas. In addition to being a renowned tenor, Quah is also the Music Director of Bel Canto Singers and a keen advocate of classical music.  “I have always wanted to promote classical music, and my children are the main reason behind it. Although they both learn musical instruments, I haven’t tried to nurture their musical taste on a particular genre only. They are very much open to influences from their peers. Sometimes they came to my concerts and said it wasn’t very inspiring, and I would try and introduce classical pieces in different arrangements to them at home. So far their responses have been rather positive.”

David Quah embarks on the journey of making classical music accessible all because of his children (Photo: Yin Xuefeng)

Creating a new Mozart experience with drum set and electric guitars (Photo: Yin Xuefeng)

With his children being the first audience of his new experiment, Quah tests his theory out by giving his beloved Mozart operas a facelift. “Out of Mozart’s operas, his three collaborations with the librettist Da Ponte, including of Cosi fan tutte, Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, were especially successful. I choose to adapt the trilogy because they are my favorites and the music is popular and more palatable for the audience. I took excerpts from these operas and fit them into a new context and narrative.” Quah’s new work is a story about music and love. The characters include the titular Da Ponte and Mozart, Figaro and Susanna from Le Nozze di Figaro and Despina from Cosi fan tutte. Excerpts from the trilogy are sung by opera singers, rearranged in the style of pop, rock, jazz and acappella. “It is at my insistence that the vocal parts be kept in classical style. The cast of singers are all classically trained, and I wish that they perform in their strongest suit. The only difference is the accompaniment here, so we do have studied the music again. It’s a fresh experience for the musicians and it takes time to adjust. The most important thing is we are willing to let go of established ideas and bias and work together to overcome the hurdles along the way.” Perhaps there are audiences who consider classical music rigid and lacking in spontaneity, but Quah believes there is still room for change and creativity. By dressing up the operas in a modern package, he tries to prove that the boundaries between genres do not have to be limitations. “My purpose is to promote classical music and introduce it to audiences who are new to Western opera. Perhaps it’s a singer’s instinct, nice melodies matter the most to me.” Quah’s words would be a reassurance for those who hesitates at the mention of classical music – regardless of the style, the tunes are guaranteed to be a treat in this production.

(Left) Jazz pianist Bowen Li as Mozart and (Right) David Quah as Da Ponte

Since the premiere in Hong Kong in 2017, Bel Canto Singers have brought the show on tour to Qingdao and Shanghai. “I am very grateful for the re-runs. These allowed us to review the production, fine tune it and make improvements over time. The audience in Shanghai was very enthusiastic and many stayed for the post performance Q&A.  They were very direct about what they like or not.  After the hiatus of the past six months, Quah is looking very much forward to staging in Hong Kong.  “Performances rely so much on the interaction between one and other. However, we will have to come up with alternative ways because of the pandemic. There are so many free online concerts these days and you could easily enjoy top-notched concerts at home, given you have the audio equipment for it.  I wonder if people are still willing to get tickets to live performances once the venues open again, and how theatres will manage to survive?” Gone are the days of getting a ticket and walking into the venue at your wish. I am sure a lot of us miss the dimmed theatre experience before the lockdown, and we have since learned not to take things for granted, but perhaps most importantly, to cherish what we have at present.

Proving genre boundaries are fluid by revamping opera 

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