HONG KONG – Armed with contagious enthusiasm and some fresh ideas about opera, Gladman Sachs’ former partner turned impresario Rumiko Hasegawa founded a theater company in 2016 and decided to make a splash in Hong cultural circles. Kong with scaled-down and theatrical versions of 19th century operas.
In 2017 came a 90-minute “La Traviata” at a local mall, followed by an abbreviated “Tosca” the following year at a luxury goods showroom. The third time, however, was not so lucky. Hasegawa’s version of “Carmen” has been canceled twice, first in 2019 during pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and then again in 2020 when the COVID pandemic closed public places.
But when Hasegawa, 62, saw other opera companies around the world not doing better, she suddenly decided to change gears. “It had to be the worst time to be at the opera, but the banker in me thought it might be the best time to develop ourselves,” Hasegawa said. “If so many other small opera companies needed help, maybe we could all work together.”
After a long conversation with American producer and set designer Julia Noulin-Merat, who created the sets and costumes for her hapless “Carmen”, Hasegawa realized that she had a partner whose enthusiasm – and notebook of contacts – matched his. .
“Rumiko kept asking how they could enter the US market,” Noulin-Merat said. “Many opera companies were turning to the internet, often making short art films with new music. But I knew of at least 13 theatrical productions of ‘La Bohème’ that had been canceled in 2020, so the audience that wanted their classics was left behind. “
With Noulin-Merat as executive producer, Hasegawa’s theater company More Than Musical embarked on their most ambitious project to date: a 90-minute film of “La Bohème” produced in partnership with Opera Columbus, Opera Omaha and Tri-Cities Opera in Binghamton, New York.
Shot on location in New York City during the pandemic, on a shoestring budget of just $ 115,000, the film reinvents Puccini’s young Parisian artists as multi-ethnic hipsters in Williamsburg and Chinatown, updating the story’s original themes. of disease and poverty with contemporary threads of racism and immigration.
“From the start, we had to keep our Hong Kong perspective,” Hasegawa explains. “It meant hiring young Asian artists – or at least picking ethnic minorities as protagonists, with as many Asians as possible.” In a year marked as much by racial tensions as by pandemic lockdowns, which also resonated strongly in the United States “We wanted to hire emerging talent in America who actually represented the whole world,” Noulin-Merat said. .
Hasegawa, who left investment banking in 2012 after becoming Goldman Sachs’ first female partner in Japan, caught the opera bug while on a business trip to Manhattan in the 1990s. retired to Hong Kong with her American husband and daughter, she soon fell into the city’s opera circles, but resistance to the art form she encountered among her young colleagues led her to form her “opera shop” with Lucy Choi, whom she met singing in the Hong Kong Opera choir.
“We wanted to create something that was ‘more than musical’,” Hasegawa explains, explaining their name. “The main thing we agreed on was not to use the word ‘opera’ because 80% of the people we wanted to reach would likely be offline.”
Noulin-Merat, born in Montreal and raised in France as a theater enthusiast, had no such qualms. “Opera is the Olympics of art forms,” she says. “It’s a visual art within a performing art, where it all comes together. It just drew me in.”
Returning to Canada to study medicine, Noulin-Merat quickly turned to theater studies, eventually earning degrees in production design and arts administration, both from Boston University. “I was excited about the opera renaissance taking place in the United States,” she recalls. “When I started professionally I was like ‘Please let it be at the opera.’ I just should have been more specific, because for two years I ended up working in a soap opera. “
Despite two decades and hundreds of theatrical productions, it was probably this frantic pace of daytime television that paved the way for “La Bohème”.
After signing the project in early December last year, Noulin-Merat immediately contacted opera director Laine Rettmer, a colleague of the late New York LoftOpera whose theatrical production of “La Bohème” in 2014 was, according to the New York Observer review. James Jorden, “as true and moving as anyone I can remember in 40 years of opera”. Rehearsals began the third week of January, filming began in mid-February.
The initial plan to use two real couples as the main characters ran into a problem when actors playing the lead roles Mimi and Rodolfo found themselves stranded in quarantine in South Korea. Then the original Musetta could not be released from an existing contract. Within days, they found tenor Ziwen Xiang and soprano Bizhou Chang, two Chinese-born singers who had learned the roles but never performed them.
They also found mezzo-soprano Larisa Martinez, a rising star who had sung the role in Rettmer’s production LoftOpera. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, in demand since playing the title role in Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten” at the Metropolitan Opera, reinvents toy dealer Parpignol as a drug trafficker drag queen.
“‘Boheme’ lends itself to this kind of exploration,” explains Noulin-Merat. “In our history, Mimi suffers from COVID, so to justify us whether or not we wear masks, we set production in February 2020, when we were all figuring out what the pandemic was. “
The 35 cast and crew members adopted New York City as an outdoor movie set, in part to document the look and feel of the city plagued by COVID.
The opera cafe scene was filmed in the iconic Nom Wah tea room during the Chinese New Year, three days after New York restaurants returned inside. Mimi and Rodolfo’s breakup took place at 3 a.m. on a spooky Coney Island. All vocals have been prerecorded and lip-synced for routine camera practice in musicals, but especially crucial during a pandemic.
“People came from all over the country by plane, with different requirements for masks,” Noulin-Merat explains. “We had regular testing and social distancing, but people were free to determine their own level of comfort. “
Now that the completed film is on demand through July on the Boston Lyric Opera website, Noulin-Merat and Hasegawa are pursuing film festivals and other cinematic venues, especially in Asia. Hasegawa now relishes the film as “a second product line” with immersive live performances.
Noulin-Merat’s horizons have also broadened, having been appointed both Creative Director of More Than Musical and Managing Director and CEO of Opera Columbus during the film’s four-month production run.
“With the Internet, the pandemic has opened doors for a small Hong Kong business to communicate with American businesses and actually create projects together,” she said. “It is an exciting time.”