Opera venues need long-term solution

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 February, 2012, 12:00am


Culture and the property market are not easy companions. A last-minute deal involving a philanthropist has saved the Sunbeam Theatre, the home of Cantonese opera in Hong Kong, but at a hefty price. The monthly rent for the 1,033-seat venue in North Point is HK$1 million, a more-than 30 per cent increase and a continuation of a trend since a new owner acquired the building in 2003. Opera lovers are thankful, although it is time they and authorities realised that this situation is simply not sustainable.

Performances have been held at the theatre in North Point for the past 40 years. It is beloved by the mostly elderly opera-goers for its central location, neighbourhood feel, convenience for public transport and proximity to pre- and after-show gathering places. That it has been in private, not government, hands has been an anomaly. Cantonese opera is intrinsic to Hong Kong society and it should have a permanent venue, not one that is at the whim of a landlord. The owner has been convinced to set aside his plans to put up a shopping mall - the theatre will stay for four more years after renovation work.

This is obviously not a long-term solution, nor is it good for lovers of opera. The landlord has not had an easy time, either, being pressured to be compassionate when he could instead be making his investment more profitable. People who support the art form should be forcing the government to more easily make available venues at locations easily accessible to patrons.

Cantonese opera is finding eager new adherents thanks to education programmes at schools. That is only fitting for a cultural emblem of our society. The government has promised new venues, but none as big as the Sunbeam will be ready until the purpose-built Xiqu Centre at the West Kowloon arts district has been completed around 2016. The new Sunbeam deal will keep opera-goers happy, but it is only delaying the inevitable. Authorities must sing a different tune and ensure venues that give fans certainty.