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National theatre sparks dramatic debate
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-04-30 09:01

On Tuesday evening at the Great Hall of the People, a group of the world's most famous Cats made their long-awaited debut in Beijing.

Workers install the glass dome of the National Grand Threatre of China, which is gradually taking shape in the centre of Beijing. [newsphoto/file]
About 6,000 enthusiastic spectators took in the performance of the world's longest-running stage musical, which local media applauded the next morning as "a great success."

But to the surprise of almost all of Mu Chun's friends, the thirtysomething accountant was not part of the audience.

His friends still remember how Mu spent an entire week's living expenses on a ticket for the Broadway show when he was studying in the United States on a scholarship.

Asked why he wasn't in attendance, Mu said he was not confident the Great Hall of the People, originally built for the purpose of meetings, was acoustically adequate for such a grand performance.

"Preferably, my dream stage will be the new National Grand Theatre," he said.

Prolonged wait

Wang Zhengming shares that dream - to stage musical masterpieces under the giant dome of the National Grand Theatre of China.

"But I am afraid the wait has to be prolonged," the spokesman of the proprietor committee of the theatre told China Daily in an exclusive interview.

The committee, entrusted by the central government for the construction of the theatre, earlier announced construction would be completed by the end of this year, and after completion it might take another six months to adjust its operations before it is ready for formal commercial performances next July.

Now, even in the most optimistic forecast, the theatre will not be finished until the latter half of 2005, Wang said.

Wang dismissed the suggestion of technical difficulties, saying the committee just wants more time to complete the unprecedented work "perfectly."

Aimed to be the best performing venue in China, the 165,000-square-metre theatre, consisting of one large theatre seating 2,500 people and three smaller auditoriums seating between 500 and 2,000, is located in central Beijing across the road from the west gate of the Great Hall of the People.

After a lengthy postponement due to surging doubts and criticisms, construction was officially launched at the end of 2001. The central government approved a budget of 2.688 billion yuan (US$324.6 million).

The futuristic design of the theatre, by French architect Paul Andreu, features a titanium and glass dome set in the centre of an artificial lake. Andreu's concept beat 68 other candidates in an international bidding process, but sparked criticism because it doesn't complement the solemn atmosphere of Tian'anmen Square.

But as the dewdrop-like design emerges ever more clearly with each passing day, old concerns about the look have been replaced by new worries about the theatre's operation.

Good management essential

It is an international practice that famous theatres schedule their performances several years ahead. In most cases, a performing contract will be signed at least two years in advance.

But the National Grand Theatre has so far signed no performing contracts with any domestic or foreign group, even though many of these groups have displayed profound interest in playing its stage. Who will be there for the first ever performance has become an interesting question for many people, not necessarily in the arts circle.

A wide-spread view expresses considerable concern over the future of the theatre, that is, which government agency will be in charge of the operation.

Wu Zhuqiang, a member of the 10th National Committee of the People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), has been urging a "definite" operational scheme since June 2000. He managed to get a statement signed by 40-odd members at this year's CPPCC national session in March, outlining reasons why the Ministry of Culture should ultimately supervise the theatre.

The 77-year-old professor of the Central Conservatory of Music also heads the art committee of the National Grand Theatre. He believes having the ministry supervise operation of the theatre will ensure the ethnic and cultural appropriateness of the performances.

He also believes performances at the National Grand Theatre should be non-commercial. "That is why it is called 'national' instead of something else," Wu said.

But spokesman Wang gave a different opinion, saying the theatre will be run commercially.

"This is a principle set as early as the central government decided on the project. Otherwise, there would not have been the proprietor committee to carry out the project on behalf of the State or the follow-up international design bidding," he said.

Wang, who is also a senior official in charge of construction in Beijing, denied the existence of a competition for control over the theatre.

As for why the theatre has not yet signed any performing contracts, Wang said that's because the proprietor committee does not yet know for sure when the theatre can be completed, and those contracts normally require detailed time tables of performances.

Wang does not view it as an imminent issue, saying the Ministry of Culture has been weaving a safety net with its annual "masterpiece project," which has performing groups across the country participate in a national competition with their best works for the year.

Moreover, Minister of Culture Sun Jiazheng has already extended official invitations to domestic and foreign artists to prepare for the theatre.

What is imminent in the eyes of Wang is the shortfall of about 300 million yuan (US$36.2 million) in the budget to finish the theatre's lamps, decorations and instruments.

"We have not yet received reply from related State departments (about the money)," he said.

Wang admitted the specific operational system of the theatre has not yet been finalized. What is certain is the proprietor committee will transform into the theatre's managerial body, after the development work is completed.

A professional company will not be hired to fill the role, as previously expected.

For that purpose, the committee has already started training managerial staff for the theatre's future operation. The first group of candidates for major positions has come back from studies in France and Japan aimed at familiarizing them with running of a world-class theatre.

Tickling ticket issue

The arrival of Cats has brought home the issue to Wang, because the National Grand Theatre will take in much less audience than the Great Hall, which, in turn, means theatre patrons will have to pay even higher prices for the same show.

The ticket issue is a real challenge confronting Wang and his colleagues, as opponents once said tickets to such an expensive theatre would just not be affordable for most citizens.

"We are in great need of an operational model to ensure the theatre's access to a large population, while maintaining a high level of performances and a reasonable profit," he said.

After allocating funds to build the theatre, the central government will cut off its financial support.

The ticket hotline of Cats said all tickets priced below 680 yuan (US$82.10) were sold out by April 20, while the higher-priced seats were still available on April 27.

Xu Rui, an official with the Beijing Dance Academy in charge of the foreign exchange activities of the academy, said the situation and worry are both quite understandable.

But he drew attention to the fact more and more Chinese are showing interest in the performing arts and will pay.

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