Zhang Yimou has become a difficult man to pigeon hole. He first found fame directing movies such as Raise the Red Lantern and Not One Less. He then put his considerable talents to work producing the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics – a tour de force which Steven Spielberg called “arguably the greatest spectacle in the new millennium.”
The Chinese government was equally impressed and asked him to manage another grandiose event: the parade to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, which will take place later this year on October 1.
But perhaps the term ‘impresario’ best fits Zhang. Indeed, he has just announced he will revisit the site of his Opening Ceremony triumph – the Bird’s Nest Stadium – to stage a spectacular performance of Turandot.
The opera – based on a Persian tale from The Book of One Thousand and One Days – was first performed at La Scala in 1926. Zhang is a fervent admirer of the work, producing his debut Turandot in Florence in 1997. A year later he got permission to stage the opera in the Forbidden City, and created one of the most memorable versions of the Puccini classic.
Memorable and appropriate – since the opera is set in Beijing itself. The eponymous Turandot is the emperor’s cold-hearted daughter who has set a high bar to matrimony. She will only marry the man who can answer her three riddles. Those who fail are to be executed.
In the opera, an incognito Prince Calaf of Tartary – struck by love at first sight – answers her riddles successfully. She is angry and he magnanimously allows till sunrise for her to discover his own name. If she succeeds she can have him executed like the other failed suitors. It is at this juncture that the tenor playing Calaf will break into probably the most famous aria in the world, Nessun Dorma.
There’s a certain logic in staging Turandot in the Forbidden City, as the historical site lends itself to the opera’s action. But the Bird’s Nest?
According to the Beijing News the same team that worked with Zhang on the Opening Ceremony is also working on Turandot. The newspaper says they are currently looking at high tech solutions so as to improve the horse-shoe shaped stadium’s acoustics. Acoustics notwithstanding, few doubt that the show – to be held on October 6 and 7 – will sellout. That’s in spite of the relatively steep ticket price. The cheap seats are to be priced at Rmb800 and the VIP seats Rmb8,800 ($1,284).
But how did it all come about? The Beijing Daily reports that Zhang Yimou partnered with a firm called Hao Si International in 2005 to win the bid to stage the Olympic Opening Ceremony. Their original idea was to use the Bird’s Nest – in the wake of the games – for commercial purposes. They thought they could create an ‘Eternal Olympics’ concept at the stadium, staging events from the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and opening an Olympic Games Museum. However, Hao Si’s president, Ye Xun told the Beijing Daily that after much research they concluded this was not practical due to a host of intellectual property rights issues relating to the Olympics.
However, Ye had seen Zhang’s 1998 production of Turandot and discovered that the production team was identical to the one used in the Olympic ceremonies. He chatted with Zhang about this in October, and the director became enthused about reprising Turandot – but staged differently to his ‘Imperial Ancestral Temple’ version, and using Chinese singers, such as the tenor Dai Yuqiang.
If the new version’s cost is anything to go by – Rmb100 million – it will be an extravaganza. However, Ye says that they view this as an investment. Indeed their plan is to create “a cultural and industrial chain”.
Plan A is to brand the Bird’s Nest version of Turandot, and then stage it around the world: taking the show to South Korea in 2010, Australia in 2011 and the US in 2012. European countries will follow. But perhaps even more interesting is Plan B. Ye says the fame of the Bird’s Nest production will lead to a whole range of spin-off products.
With Turandot being a Chinese princess – and perhaps with an eye to what Disney achieved with Mulan – the idea is to create a character that can be merchandised through books, cartoons, dolls and other “cultural and creative products”. Ye says he and Zhang Yimou will create “a value chain that will exist for a long time.”
Soon Zhang may be better known for raising a brand’s profit than raising a red lantern.
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