Warren Mok is leading the charge to turn Hong Kong into a place where the classical art form can thrive
“Opera is for everybody. Two hundred years ago, it was the pop music of its time,” says Warren Mok. “People say, ‘Why should there be opera in Hong Kong? Opera is not for Chinese, it is for Westerners only.’ That is totally wrong. They argue that it is only for the elite class – but that’s also baloney!”
Mok, a renowned opera tenor and artistic director at Opera Hong Kong, has been passionate about opera ever since watching, as a teenager, the late Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti sing La Bohème in Hawaii.
“It was 1980 and it cost US$100, which was a lot of money,” he says. “I sat in the back row and I fell in love with how a human voice could sound like that, without a microphone, in a 2,500-seat hall. So I told myself, I’ve got to sing like that,” he says.
While he freely admits that opera will never be as popular in Hong Kong as Cantopop, he thinks that everyone should have the opportunity to experience it from a young age.
“I don’t expect everyone to be an opera fan, but while we are a world-class financial city, we are not a world-class cultural city,” he says. “We need opera. The Hong Kong government has the money – it’s just a matter of how much they are prepared to put in.”
Ten years ago, Mok and other like-minded supporters created Opera Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation that not only performs operas, but also runs programmes in primary and high schools to educate young people about the art form.
While he does receive funding from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department for one opera a year, and also works with the French May arts festival, he still feels that Hong Kong needs a proper opera performance venue.
“The ones we have right now are outdated. They’re 20 years behind, have bad acoustics – they’re no use,” he says. “Many good productions that I want to bring here from Beijing won’t work. Last year the whole set [from a Beijing production] had to be remade because it wouldn’t fit into the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.”
Mok – who lists his favourite composers as Puccini and Verdi, but his whose favourite opera as is Carmen by Georges Bizet – was born in Beijing to parents who were both medical doctors. He came to Hong Kong when he was seven, before moving to Hawaii for higher education when he was 15.
His decision to become an opera singer was not one that impressed his parents. “They wanted me to be a medical doctor, or a lawyer like my grandfather, or an accountant – I hated all of them. But they said if I decided to pursue my music career, then do so with determination, but be prepared to learn something else if you don’t succeed. So I set myself a limit where, if I hadn’t succeeded by the time I was 30, I would focus on something else.”
In fact, Mok did put a back-up plan into action. As well as studying a master’s degree in music from the Manhattan School of Music, he also took the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) and would have gone on to study business had it not been for a successful audition at the Berlin Opera in 1987.
Since his debut in Berlin he has performed in concert halls and festivals around the world. His repertoire consists of more than 60 roles, including Calaf (Turandot) and Cavaradossi (Tosca) and Rodolfo (La Bohème). He has had to learn to be multilingual to take on roles in German, French and Italian, and says it is vital to also be a good actor.
“When I’m on stage, I’m not Warren Mok. I’m Rodolfo, I’m Don Jose,” he says. “There are many good Chinese voices out there, but you also have to be able to act, otherwise it’s just like watching a concert.”
Starting out as a Chinese opera singer, however, was not easy. “Being Chinese wasn’t helpful in the beginning. Luckily I don’t look too Chinese – my eyes are bigger than an average Chinese. In those days, though, I still used to think, ‘Why wasn’t I born into an Italian family? Why wasn’t I born blonde?’ I don’t think that any more,” he says.
“There’s many Korean and Chinese singers out there. But back then, you had to be better than [European singers] to get roles. In Berlin, I was the first Chinese to sing major roles. Now a lot of Chinese are coming out and singing in the big houses.”
Mok was artistic director for the Macau International Music Festival for 13 years before moving into a consultant role last year. His work with the festival made him realise how much he also enjoys the production side of the industry.
“I love singing first, but producing is my second love. Through producing I can understand singing even more, like how much work is done behind the scenes. That makes me more appreciative when I go out and sing my own role,” he says.
“Previously I didn’t care about anyone else. Now I have to calculate how much money I have and what kind of artists I can afford. In Macau I have been very lucky. The Macau International Music festival is 100 per cent subsidised by the government, which means I have the freedom to travel the world looking for performers. I enjoy my freedom. I could not be in an office from nine to five – it’s just not my character.”
Mok is thrilled that his 17-year-old son, Leighton, also loves classical music and plays the cello, trumpet and piano. Currently a student at the Chinese International School, he will shortly leave to study economics and music at university.
“He doesn’t have to be a professional musician,” Mok says. “But it’s great that he loves music.”
What Hong Kong needs in terms of opera to make it a world-class cultural city:
- Six operas a year, with 50 per cent funding from the government.
- A good-sized opera house large enough for international productions and with modern acoustics.
- More education for the young to familiarise children with opera, so it is seen as something that is not restricted to Western culture.
- A resident opera company.