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A universal language: How Dr Derek Anthony is taking Hongkongers to the song

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Putting songs in Hong Kong hearts for a quarter century, Norwegian transplant Dr Derek Anthony is now taking Hongkongers to the song. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

If you found yourself in DB Plaza one Sunday afternoon in May, you may have been treated to an impromptu performance of O Sole Mio by classical vocalist and teacher Dr Derek Anthony – actually a doctor of vocal performance – after a photo shoot. It may not be a Florentine piazza, but it was still a refreshing bit of fearlessness that reminds us that humanity really does have the ability to create beauty. Heads indeed turned as Derek’s voice boomed over to Fusion. Fancy that: a little bit of high culture in the middle of Discovery Bay.

A week later, Derek, a 25-year Hong Kong resident, with roughly five of those in DB, relaxes in his new Wanchai school library, the operatic voice lowered – for now. The sound really carries in this space, officially The Music & Drama Institute, as Derek demonstrates later on.

On being discovered

Soft spoken and old-school gentlemanly, it’s easy to see how Derek has ushered over 1,000 students to either greatness or simple pleasure. “There are all kinds of reasons why people want to sing and there are all ages for learning vocal performance,” he says. His youngest student was a five-yearold who was having fun learning songs in four languages, and his oldest was a retired, 83-year-old lawyer who survived the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong.

Over the years, Derek has prepared numerous students for some of the world’s top music schools, including Juilliard in New York, Bloomington in Indiana, The Royal Academy of Arts in London, and his own alma mater, The University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. “This year I have a local student entering The Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen,” Derek says. “Seeing my students succeed is a special kind of pleasure. But I don’t mind your reasons – I’m happy to work with anyone.”

Born in South Africa and raised in Norway, Derek stumbled into his calling while working in the food industry. A labour-office aptitude test told him he was destined for a career in culture and languages. The singing bug bit when he first heard La traviata performed live, and he was talent-spotted soon after that.

“I had quit high school and was working in a sausage factory,” Derek recalls. “I went to a singalong for a male voice choir and the conductor heard me through all the other voices. That’s when the idea popped up that maybe I could do this. I was 17.”

While studying motivational psychology at The University of Oslo, Derek trained for two years under big-name Wagnerian tenor Egil Frostmann, and he went on to join The Vienna State Opera. “I didn’t know I had ‘it,’” he says. “It was all about lucky coincidences, and now as a teacher, it’s my job to recognise talent in others. A lot of people have talent without being able to discover it.”

Derek himself has learnt from some of the best (Austrian legend Otto Edelmann and his French counterpart Martial Singher), at some of the world’s best schools (universities of Oslo, Vienna, and California at Santa Barbara, and The Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University). He’s also performed at some of the world’s best theatres (he prefers the old houses, like La Scala and Teatro Colón) in over 60 operas in 13 languages. He settled in Hong Kong in 1992.

Settling in Hong Kong

“I thought ‘Wow, this is interesting, as soon as I landed in Hong Kong,’” Derek says. “Friendly and dynamic people, great food and warm weather, plus superb international opportunities. I already had a career in Europe, I’d studied, worked and won many competitions in the US, so I gave myself a year here to see what might happen.”

As it turns out, not much initially. Derek rented a room and a piano, and performed in an opera at the University of Hong Kong, whilst teaching himself to speak and read Cantonese. But when he connected with the Hong Kong Singers in 1993 – the company needed a Tevye for Fiddler on the Roof – his fortunes turned.

As the only professional singer in the cast, Derek soon found himself with 50 students and a new career phase. This lead to him heading up the Vocal Department at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and becoming the leading bass on the Hong Kong opera scene.

In 2000, Derek founded The Music & Drama Institute, where he draws on his singing and stage experience (and his training in psychology) to coach students. The vocal, speech and presentation-skills training covers breathing, articulation, support, resonance, and ways to conquer stage fright and learn to project confidently. “My client list now includes TV presenters, business and government leaders, lawyers, academics and actors, both locally and internationally,” Derek says with pride.

Performer and expert guide  

Last month saw Derek in Ho Chi Minh City playing Sarastro in The Magic Flute at the Saigon Opera House. This marked his fourth return in the role, and his third time performing it in a local language. (The Flute is sung in German but a full production requires dialogue.) The company asked if Derek would consider being shadowed by a Vietnamese actor, dressed in black, speaking the lines. He declined… and took the time to learn the dialogue in Vietnamese instead.

“I’m glad I chose not to follow their suggestion, because they assigned a female actor to the main baritone,” Derek says with a smile. “And I was playing this authoritative high priest with a booming bass voice.” Uh, no.

Next on the agenda are plans for a luxury working trip to the European stomping ground of opera’s greats – Vienna, Bavaria, Verona, Milan – loaded up with history, food and, of course, music. Derek may have had his fill of academia, but he is a music professor, and in going along as an expert guide, he is committed to providing plenty of opera education in between castle visits, performances and fancy overnight stays.

The tour, the first of its kind, is provided by Jebsen Holidays and follows Derek’s shorter Vietnam jaunt for The Flute… just without the singing this time.

You can contact Derek Anthony through The Music & Drama Institute, www.drderekanthony.com.

Photo by Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

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