Concert Review: Performer Engages in High Risk Behavior with Hong Kong Audience

Hong Kong Arts Festival

A visual concert with poor visuals? A renowned performer takes risks with a fickle Hong Kong audience. He had been advised to say something good about dim sum. Is that as much as they told him?


Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra no stage at the Concert Hall of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Kowloon. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.


An opera written by Rufus Wainwright is followed by a concert starring Rufus Wainwright. How will it go down with a fickle Hong Kong audience?

It’s always risky for an entertainer to walk on stage following a lengthy intermission and try to engage the audience in rhythmic clapping.

In a place like Hong Kong, whose audiences are known for their lack of enthusiasm, it can only be described as reckless.

When the lackluster clapping dies out the moment the entertainer starts singing, it is – how can I put this? –  a bit awkward.

Thus begins the second half of the Rufus Wainwright performance in the Concert Hall of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui district.

Prima Donna

The show was divided into two very different parts. The first half was a “symphonic visual concert” called “Prima Donna”, an opera written by Rufus, which premiered at the Manchester International Festival in 2009.

The opera has also been performed in London, England; Toronto, Ontario, and New York, New York.

It was sung in French, with English and Chinese subtitles. I didn’t bother reading the subtitles. The music stood on its own merits.

The score was enjoyable enough, and sopranos Sarah Fox and Wang Xi as well as tenor Andre Letourneur put on admirable performances.

Conducted by Joana Carneiro, the highly respected Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra also did an excellent job.

Awful Acoustics

But I couldn’t help but marvel at the poor quality of the acoustics at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Is this why I attend so few live performances in Hong Kong?

The singers could sometimes hardly be heard over the sound of the orchestra. Shouldn’t a world-class city like Hong Kong have a world-class performance venue?

I think the place should be torn down, and a new facility – designed by a world-class architect with a proven track record (rather than a local bureaucrat) should be contracted to design it.

And it should be situated in the yet-to-happen West Kowloon Cultural District – and the view Victoria Harbour from across Salisbury Road should be restored.

As for the opera’s visuals, they were about as unimaginative as they could get. They didn’t really add anything. They didn’t advance the plot.

For the most part they were still images, they didn’t change very often, and they were not even in focus.

I think they should have dropped the visuals and positioned this as concert opera.

More Risky Behaviour

Getting back to the second half of the show …

The short lived rhythmic clapping was followed by a few numbers that were not the least bit  inspiring.

Rufus’s voice could only be described as hollow and raspy. Just as I was considering cutting my losses and sneaking out, I fell asleep.

When I awoke, Rufus had found his voice. It had become rich and powerful. There was – dare I say it – passion?

I was not familiar with the guy. Now I understood why a good friend had encouraged me to attend the performance.

The song was tuneful. At the end of the number, I clapped enthusiastically, and not just to be polite. Any thoughts of falling back asleep were put on hold.

A couple of numbers later, Rufus bid us adieu and left the stage.

“That was quick,” I thought.

Talk about risky behavior! Was Rufus aware of that fact that when either the curtain comes down or the performer leaves the stage, Hong Kong audiences usually stand up, and it is not usually to give a standing ovation – they are heading for the door?

Encore, Anybody?

I have often had to inform friends that they should clap loudly and enthusiastically at the end of a performance – otherwise there won’t be an encore, and the encore is generally the best part of the show.

Fortunately, this audience knew better. Maybe I was not the only one that had noticed a few additional musicians joining those that were already on stage as Rufus was leaving.

And this is when the show really took off.

There were at least five if not six or seven more numbers, and they were his best. He didn’t tease us with any more false exits. Maybe somebody back stage had warned him.

When the final song was sung, the house lights went on, the audience stopped clapping, and we all filed out as quickly as possible, in typical Hong Kong fashion.

The performers, meanwhile, were still on stage …

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