Selling out

A surprise success story

Selling out

Glowing with pride: the National Centre for the Performing Arts

When a Guangzhou-born architect put a glass pyramid in the middle of France’s Louvre – a baroque palace that epitomises a golden age of European civilisation – there was something of an outcry. The French newspaper, Le Monde compared it to “an annex to Disneyland” and a consortium of French environmental group’s sniffed that IM Pei’s pyramid would only be suitable if it were “in the middle of a desert”.

Shift the scene from Paris in 1984 to modern day China; and observe a subtle turning of the tables. Replace Gallic horror with Chinese shock, at the sight of a titanium and glass ellipsoid dome in the eye line of Beijing’s Forbidden City – a work of architecture dating back to the Ming Dynasty. And guess what? The architect is French: Paul Andreu. C’est revenge, n’est pas?

And just as the French ranted about the Pei pyramid, so too the Chinese snipe at Andreu’s ‘Egg’, as it is nicknamed.

Part of the reason is the cost: Rmb3.2 billion ($467 million). Part is the location, juxtaposing the modern dome with the traditional harmony of Emperor Zhu Di’s palace. And then there are the practicalities: how do you keep a gigantic glass dome clean in a city with chronic air pollution like Beijing? Feng shui experts have also commented that it resembles a Chinese grave.

But just like Pei’s pyramid – now considered a work of modern brilliance even by the French – Andreu’s design for the National Centre for the Performing Arts is having the last laugh. Confounding the sceptics it is proving to be a great success.

The National Grand Theatre, as it is also known, held 991 performances in 2008, selling 930,000 tickets. This was enough to cover the building’s annual maintenance cost of Rmb400 million – confounding those who thought this ‘white elephant’ could lose Rmb100-200 million in its first year of operation.

Chen Ping, the president of the facility, told the China News Network that he is confident of breaking even again in 2009 – in spite of the economic slowdown. In fact, during the Lunar New Year Festival performance season, the National Grand Theatre staged 86 productions, with audience levels reaching 200,000. The upcoming summer season will include 139 productions.

Highlights thus far have included a production of Turandot, performed in cooperation with the Italian Puccini Foundation, The King, co-produced with the City Hall Opera House in Toulouse; and an operatic adaptation of the local classic, Red Cliff – which virtually sold out.

Full houses are all the more surprising when you consider a visit to this particularly grand theatre isn’t cheap – at least by local standards. According to Chen, ticket prices average Rmb300 per performance – rising to Rmb1,500 for the best seats.

Plans for the National Centre for the Performing Arts were first hatched in 1998, with Jiang Zemin (China’s then president) personally choosing the French design. The dome is surrounded by an artificial lake; and if a modernist opera house surrounded by water sounds familiar, then it should: the Chinese leadership very much had in mind the Sydney Opera House when the blueprint was formulated.

Sydney’s Opera House has transformed the city’s cultural image since its completion in 1973. Beijing, which has ambitions to be one of the world’s leading cities, clearly hopes for a similar impact from its own ‘opera house’.

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