The Mei Lanfang Grand Theater in downtown Beijing, which is named after the legendary Peking Opera star, is quite popular among local fans and foreigners alike. So much so that, during weekends, tickets for the nearly 1,100 seats are very often sold out.
Its three-story structure, decorated with traditional Chinese characters on the inside, was built at a cost of nearly 200 million yuan ($29.24 million) and thrown open to the public in November 2007.
(Left) A fan photographs a statue of Hua Dan, a young, lovely character in Peking Opera, in the corridor of the Mei Lanfang Grand Theater. (Right) A Peking Opera sculpture at the theater.[China Daily]
"In addition to the luxurious interior and intangible value of the Mei Lanfang brand, our unique selling proposition is the all-star lineup from the China National Peking Opera Company," said Yu Sheng, the general manager of the theater.
The China National Peking Opera Company, China's top operatic troupe, entrusted Beijing Guoyishengping Culture Development Co, Ltd to manage the theater and make it commercially viable one and a half years ago. Zhang Delin and his wife Yu, a famous BTV anchorwoman, own the Beijing Guoyishengping.
That move marked a turnaround for the State-owned firm used to government funding to run its operations. An opera ticket at the theater is priced between 2,080 yuan to 50 yuan.
For long, State-owned performance groups like the Peking Opera Company used to be subsidized by the Chinese government.
But, since 2004, many of them have carried out reforms in line with government policies that encouraged cultural units to tap market resources and cut their dependence on State funds.
"It's really different from three years ago when we used to get fiscal support and subsidies from the government," said Wu Jiang, president of the Peking Opera Company, which also owns an experimental theater, Changheyuan, that performs a modern-style Peking Opera as well as classic arias at comparatively lower rates for cost-conscious audiences.
Other State-owned performance troupes, including the China Children's Art Troupe, China Puppet Art Troupe, China Arts and Entertainment Group, Jilin Opera and Dance Performance Co, Shanghai City Entertainment Co Ltd and Jiangsu Opera and Dance Group, have also followed in Peking Opera's wake.
Take Shanghai's Circus Theater, a large hemispherical building with a golden dome, for example. The theater hosts the multimedia odyssey ERA every evening.
The play has been staged over 1,450 times with box office receipts exceeding 150 million yuan. Nearly 1.4 million people, 60 percent of them foreigners, have seen the performance to date.
"Not only will the audience be amazed by the ERA acrobats' control and precision, they will also be enchanted by the world that is created through the use of multimedia, technology, lighting and sound effects, elaborate costumes, original live music and a lot more," said Wang Hongbo, media director of China Arts and Entertainment Group, the country's largest art conglomerate.
ERA, jointly produced by the China Arts and Entertainment Group, Shanghai Media & Entertainment Group and Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe, has seen investments worth 10 million yuan by each of the partners.
"This kind of project-oriented cooperation would have been unimaginable before the market-oriented reform process," said Hu Huiling, a Shanghai Jiaotong University professor who specializes in China's cultural industry.
"Now (after reform) we have got the right to design products independently; but since we cannot get fiscal support anymore, we are forced to make every effort to cater to the audience and become competitive in terms of products, services and business operations," Zhang Yu, the general manager of China Arts and Entertainment Group, said during a recent interview to CCTV.
Wang Hongbo said raising funds from the market meant that the company was free to devise a long-term development strategy instead of coping with short-term issues like balancing its meager budget.
To all intents and purposes, the move out of the government's shadow seems to be paying off.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, from 2006 to 2007, the peak period when State-owned troupes around China started to embrace market-oriented reforms, the number of performances went up 9.97 percent, from 310,000 times to 340,900 times. The total revenue of these State-owned troupes also surged 18.72 percent, from 5.38 billion yuan to 6.38 billion yuan.
Data from China's Ministry of Culture showed that in 2004 there were 90 Peking Opera troupes, and their combined income was less than 45 million yuan. Though they were then massively subsidized by the state, audience numbers had started dwindling.
But the trend has reversed post reform and many troupes have started to make money.
The China National Peking Opera Company gets 2 million yuan from the operators of the Mei Lanfang Grand Theater for 100 performances each year from 2008 to 2012.
Retaining good artistes requires market-oriented pay system
"I have never seen the Peking Opera in so magnificent a building," said Wang Jianmin, a 58-year-old Beijinger and loyal Peking opera fan, whose son gave him tickets for a performance during this year's Spring Festival. "But the ticket rates are expensive; I prefer to watch it at Changheyuan where each ticket costs only 50 yuan."
The more pressing concern, however, is how to retain good artistes, and that is an issue the troupes should ponder seriously, professor Hu said.
"In the past, the salary was fixed under a system formulated by the government; the market mechanism has made the payment system disparate, resulting in competition within the industry," Hu said.
"But management of actors, who are usually emotional people, is not easy. In addition to money, more chances to perform, encouragement and open communication should be fostered," Hu said.
Wang Ying, the general manager of China Children's Arts Troupe, said her company has adopted a flexible salary system in line with performance metrics and a top artiste at her company can earn more than 10,000 yuan per month, compared to a monthly income of 2,000 to 3,000 yuan under the State-subsidy regime.
The annual salary and insurance expenses for its 100-plus employees surged from 2 million yuan in 2003, a year prior to the market reform, to more than 7.5 million yuan last year.
From a cultural unit supported by the central government, the troupe turned into a joint venture company in late 2004.
Its five shareholders - the Beijing Youth Daily, Cultural Facility Operation and Management Center under the Beijing Ministry of Culture, the TV Industry Development Center of Beijing Television Station, High School Property Development Co Ltd of Beijing Education Commission, and the Beijing Cultural Development Center - have invested 40 million yuan cumulatively in the venture.
The China Children's Art Troupe gave 303 performances in 2006, generating 55 million yuan in revenue. It did 398 shows in 2007 and 666 in 2008, with income touching 62.64 million yuan and 75.60 million yuan, respectively, for both years.
The troupe last year performed the children's fictional play Fuwa, based on the mascots of the Beijing Olympic Games. The play depicted how the five fuwas united to overcome difficulties and challenges and make the world peaceful and harmonious.
Later, the company built several small-sized Fuwa amusement parks catering to children in Beijing, China's capital city. The revenue from this business alone has the potential to make up one-fourth of its income going forward, insiders said.