New Hong Kong Opera Singer Louise Kwong Shines in Bizet’s "Carmen"
This May, Opera Hong Kong brings back French composer George Bizet’s Carmen, one of the most widely performed productions in the world since 1875. Carmen tells the tale of a cigarette factory worker’s passion, true love and jealousy and is set in Seville, Spain in around 1830. International powerhouses including Canadian mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule, winner of George London Prize 2019, as well as Gosha Kowalinska, champion in Spazio Musica 2010 in Orvieto are set to play the title role, whose aria “Habanera” the world remembers this classical production for.
Performing alongside the international cast is Hong Kong soprano Louise Kwong, who will star as Micaëla, the corporal Don José’s childhood sweetheart from the village. Betrothed to Don José, she is deserted by him when he falls in love with Carmen, whom he is supposed to arrest for a factory dispute. The role of Micaëla is of a chaste, soft yet determined maiden who demands nothing less in singing skills than the title role.
Kwong, a soprano born and raised in Hong Kong, has what it takes to play the part. A music alumna from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Dutch National Opera Academy and the Royal College of Music of London, the 34-year-old was one of the Hong Kong Ten Outstanding Young Persons in 2019. She won the Best Soprano prize in the 18th International Singing Competition Ferruccio Tagliavini in Austria. Carmen is not her first performance—in fact, this is her second time playing Micaëla since 2018. Previously, she has performed the roles of Mimì in La Bohème, Cio-cio-san in Madame Butterfly, Liù in Turandot, Anna in Anna Bolena, as well as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. Tatler Hong Kong speaks with Kwong to discover her path to “crescendo”.
Opera singing is not a popular career option in Hong Kong. What inspired you to follow this path?
I began singing in a children’s choir when I was seven and taking individual singing lessons at 14. I did not plan to become an opera singer at that time. What drove me to keep singing was my love of it. After I graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I furthered my music study in the UK and Netherlands. I started to focus on different challenging arias and I entered an international operatic singing competition in 2012 where I won second prize. Right after that, I was admitted to the Dutch National Opera Studio. Gradually I developed myself into an opera singer and was hired by different opera companies.
What is a day in the life of a professional opera singer like?
We usually spend three weeks or more rehearsing for an opera. During this time, I make sure to have at least eight hours of sleep every day to rest my voice. Before a rehearsal, I warm up my voice—but not before having some good food. For the rest of the day, I try not to tire myself out from a day of rehearsals so that I am in the best shape on the day of the performance.
You have won several awards, including the Hong Kong Ten Outstanding Young Persons in 2019 and the second prize, Audience prize and the Best Soprano prize in the 18th International Singing Competition Ferruccio Tagliavini in Austria. What is your key to success?
Never give up. I am always doing the thing that I want to do, which is singing. Even when I face obstacles, I do not give up. I just keep trying.
What is your view on the performing arts landscape of Hong Kong? Is there enough support?
Hong Kong has opera companies but we lack a good venue for performing operas. It’s not just a stage that opera singers or choruses need, but a venue for rehearsals daily. A round-the-year plan, such as an opera bill a month, is also favourable for opera for the art to be art to nurtured and for it to grow in Hong Kong. Cities like Rome and Vienna have operas showing every month and opera companies have their own crew, choruses and singers. That requires a lot of money and resources, and that is the support that we would like the government to provide more of in Hong Kong.
Can you share with us your first professional performance experience?
I don’t usually suffer from stage fright, but I did for the first time during my first performance at the Rome Opera House. I was singing the role of Mimì in La Boheme. Luckily, as soon as I made my first sound on stage, the nerves disappeared.
You sang the role of Micaëla in Carmen while you were in Rome. Is the performance in Hong Kong this time in any way different? How will the previous experience help you with this upcoming production?
I sang the role of Micaëla in summer 2018 on the stage of Caracalla with the Rome Opera House. I did 5 performances and that was a very precious experience for me. We had around 5000 people in the audience every night. The sun sets very late during the summer in Italy. Our performances began at 9 pm and ended at around midnight. It was difficult for singers to maintain their energy at such a late hour, but we overcame it and made sure every show was impressive. After this experience, I knew better how to pace and save up energy for myself for subsequent performances or rehearsals.
Which is the most challenging or favourite role you have played?
So far, I would say Butterfly (Cio-Cio-san) in Madame Butterfly. The role is heavy and difficult. She has to express so many different emotions throughout the opera. Still, the singer has to keep calm in order to pull herself through the whole night.
How do you feel about performing with Carolyn Sproule and Gosha Kowalinska, two international stars?
I haven’t had the chance to rehearse with them yet as they are still completing their 21-day quarantine. But I am really looking forward to working with them.
What are your upcoming plans and where can we see you perform next?
I will be singing the role Giulietta in I capuletti e i Montecchi with Opera Hong Kong in the summer of 2021.
Bizet’s Carmen will be shown from May 13 to 16 at the Grand Theatre of Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Find out more at operahongkong.org