Do you know… the record for the world’s longest applause? That opera composers used to hire professional applauders at their live performances? And that some male opera singers had their testicles removed for the sake of preserving their soprano voices? These are issues pertinent to the development of operas in the past and present days. But of course no one likes to read boring articles about the 400-year-old history of opera in Hong Kong and the rest of the world. So here are six little-known fun facts about operas that you would surely be interested in.
Fact 1: Plácido Domingo set the world record for the longest applause in an opera
This fact is getting a little bit tricky here. The title of the world’s longest applause used to belong to Plácido Domingo, a Spanish opera singer. On July 30, 1991 when Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello was on show in Vienna, Plácido Domingo played the title role and yielded a standing ovation that lasted for an incredible duration of 1 hour and 10 minutes. That set the longest applause in world history, but the record was beaten 13 years later by Dustin Luke Nelson, outlasting Plácido Domingo’s performance by 50 more minutes at his performance at the Walker Art Center's Open Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Fact 2: Claques were hired to applaud at opera performances
The success of an opera cannot be judged merely by the loudness of applause received at its performance. Nonetheless, many in the classical period deemed cheers and boos important indicators of success. This gave rise to the employment of claques, which were professional groups that would feign tears at teary moments, laugh at hilarious times and chant for encores at the end of the show. These professional clappers were most commonly seen in France in the 19th century, the influence of which quickly spread to theatres in neighbouring areas. Hopefully claques are not employed in any opera in Hong Kong nowadays.
Fact 3: Young male opera singers had their testicles removed to preserve their voices
We all know that boys’ voices crack and get lower upon puberty. The universal rule of human’s endocrine system does not only perturb the youngsters personally, but also causes trouble to the team for the lack of male sopranos. During the Baroque period, therefore, male singers would have their testicles removed before they even reached the age of puberty. These professional performers, who sacrificed their masculinity to retain their high-pitch voices, were known as castrati. The last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1992 such that castrati cannot be found in any opera in Hong Kong or other parts of the world in modern times.
Fact 4: The Sydney Opera House was one of the world's most over budget projects
An article about opera cannot be complete without mention of the iconic Sydney Opera House. According to Joseph Cahill, Premier of New South Wales in 1954, construction of the Sydney Opera House began as a project to “help mould a better and more enlightened community”. Before Australia’s award-winning opera house became a famous tourist attraction today, its construction racked up a cost of $102 million (in Australian dollars), almost 15 times the estimated figure of $7 million. Worse still, building work of Sydney Opera House was expected to be completed in 4 years, but it took up to 14 years in the end.
Fact 5: Opera singers’ voices are loud because they sing at distinct frequencies
You’re not alone if you are wondering why opera singers’ voices, without amplifiers of any kind, can be clearly heard over the sound of an orchestra. To project their voices over the theatre, opera singers specifically adjust the resonance frequency of their vocal tracts to a level close to the fundamental frequency of the pitch. In simpler terms, while most of us sing at our most natural frequency, professional opera singers sing at a different frequency to make their voices significantly louder.
Fact 6: There are very few performances of Western opera in Hong Kong
So that’s quite a lot of technical knowledge and facts about operas in the past. Setting the calendar date in 2019, it is not hard to notice that opera in Hong Kong and other regions does not thrive as much as it used to be. If you type in the keywords ‘opera’ or ‘opera in Hong Kong’ on Google, the most probable result that you come across would be Opera Hong Kong’s website. If not, the bet is on the newly opened Xiqu Centre featuring Cantonese operas in the West Kowloon Cultural District. Following from this observation, one can confidently conclude that one can hardly find, let alone see a Western opera in Hong Kong. Opera Hong Kong is no doubt the leading organizer of opera performances in Hong Kong, but make sure you don’t miss out More Than Musical’s amazing live shows which present operas in a modern, compact and accessible manner. Hint for you: their actors and actresses use laptops and smartphones in their performances! Sounds fun, right? Check out their latest programmes and subscribe to stay tuned here!