5 Questions With The ‘Hannibal’ Opera Composer/Conductor Sung Jin Hong

“I forgive you, Will… will you forgive me?” – Hannibal Lecter

Bryan Fuller’s vision of Hannibal might be on pause right now, but Fannibals are keeping it alive and well not only in our hearts (and social media), but, in the case of One World Symphony conductor Sung Jin Hong, on the stage as well. In what promises to be an adaptation worthy of Hannibal Lecter’s refined tastes, Hong has taken the series and twisted it into his latest “operasode.”

Hong, who first gave the operasode treatment to Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, was kind enough to answer a few questions about his version of Hannibal, which will be performed one night only in New York City on Sunday, October 25, 2015.

When/how did you decide you wanted to adapt Hannibal into an opera? Was there a specific episode or scene that really jumped out at you and made you choose it as your next project?

“The Red Dinner.” Immediately after One World Symphony’s encore performance of Breaking Bad — “Ozymandias” in late May 2014, Bryan Fuller’s “Mizumono” episode aired, and it inspired me to adapt the Hannibal Lecter narrative as my next original operasode. This emotionally hyper-charged episode had all the natural ingredients for a music drama: repressed sexual tension, brutality with dark beauty, heart-breaking massacre framed in sublime harmony. The expansive and rich cinematography from this episode became an unforgettable counterpoint to the unspeakable crimes committed by Hannibal.

Speaking of episodes, which ones can we expect to see featured in your adaptation?

After exploring and digesting the universe of Hannibal Lecter for almost three months, that spanned four novels, five films, and 39 television episodes, my original libretto began with Clarice Starling visiting Will Graham and seeking counsel on catching Hannibal the Cannibal, and continued with the adaptation of more than a dozen episodes that reached its climatic conclusion at “The Red Dinner.” If I followed through with the original libretto, the length of the music drama may have surpassed the challenging duration of [Richard] Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Who wants to experience a new 21st-century opera that may last more than 14 hours?!*

To solve this major obstacle, I looked to the renowned journalist and novelist Ernest Hemingway. He preached storytellers to be ultra-selective, to know when to offer the glimpse of the tip versus the infinite depth of the iceberg. Which composers adapted this similar approach? Brahms and Sibelius. While Mahler and Wagner didn’t take into consideration of audiences’ attention spans nor the production costs in a metropolitan capital, perhaps Brahms and Sibelius practiced the power of “say less and mean more.”

The iceberg theory helped me to focus on exploring the forbidden relationship between Hannibal and Will, while giving voice to the countless victims of the Chesapeake Ripper (a.k.a. Hannibal the Cannibal).

In the music drama, Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter will be first introduced through the “Mukozuke” episode from season two of Fuller’s drama. Will’s heightened ability to immerse himself in not only the victims but also the psychopaths he was profiling made us ask: Is empathy always good, or can it be dangerous? I’m very curious to see and feel how our world premiere guests will respond when they hear tenor Ransom Bruce, countertenor Nicholas Tamagna, and the entire symphony bring this hallucinatory and seductive scene to life.

In the episodes “Potage” and “Trou Normand,” from season one, the music drama will capture the essence of light and dark through Abigail Hobbs’s underlining arc of folie à deux. Soprano Marie Putko will perform the operatic mad scene, limning her innocence, grappling with her decent into hysteria, and eventually empowering her with the hypnotic assistance from Lecter. Perhaps this monodrama will reflect influences from the quintessential mad scene in Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

Of course, the heart-breaking and consuming Red Dinner episode “Mizumono” will be adapted.

The series finale “The Wrath of the Lamb” was incorporated into the final scene of the music drama. We literally have two very contrasting conclusions prepared at the world premiere. We may actually ask our guests to help us choose. Should Will, Hannibal, and Abigail live?

You’ve mentioned previously that you’ve put a focus on the sexual undertones and gender fluidity of Hannibal and Will’s relationship — will you be taking their romance to a less subtle level than we’ve seen on the series?

Our world premiere guests will have to discover if the music drama will have the exquisitely bittersweet pining of Remains of the Day or the raw, desperate passions of Brokeback Mountain.

Hannibal’s sister Mischa is someone who’s played a small but significant and largely unseen role in the Hannibal books, movies, and show. How will she be incorporated into your adaptation?

Anyone curious about Hannibal Lecter has to ask: How did he become a pathological monster? Who did he first cannibalize? From Thomas Harris’s novel Hannibal Rising, we learn that his first victim was the traumatic event that forever changed him. Unknowingly, he ate his little sister. If he feels any human remorse for his crimes, it would be for his Mischa. In the music drama, Hannibal will not only hear Mischa (performed by Jane Albert) calling him in his dreams, but she will provoke his victims to haunt him, transforming his dreams to nightmares.

What’s the biggest theme of Hannibal you explored in the opera?

Hannibal is not a simple epic or forbidden love story. His universe is incredibly complex and queered, and the music drama reflects it. Hannibal’s main leitmotif is played throughout the music drama, like an omniscient force pervading and structuring the entire universe. But his theme is aways blurred, made ambiguous, until the moment Hannibal reveals himself to Will. The solo piano will clearly play Hannibal’s signature theme in this poignant moment of epiphany and transformation. Finnish pianist Markus Kaitila will perform the intense solo.

Empathy, trauma, folie à deux and queerness may be the more pronounced human themes explored in the music drama. If there’s a more subtle, discerning pulse, it may possibly be about family and forgiveness.

“Forgiveness is such a profound, conscious, and unconscious state of affairs. You can’t actually choose to do it. It simply happens to you.” – Bella Crawford

For more information about the Hannibal operasode and to buy tickets, go here.

*Fannibals, of course!