China invests in hi-definition opera movies

China's National Centre for the Performing Arts is embracing opera and the digital revolution in a big way, write Xu Donghuan and Sam Olluver

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 9:55am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 11:42am

The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Beijing is an institution in a hurry. Opened in 2007, the centre was initially better known for a slew of controversy: the design of its futuristic egg-shaped building by architect Paul Andreu, delayed completion and huge construction and maintenance bills.

Since then, however, the centre, also known as the National Grand Theatre, has set off on an ambitious programme to develop a repertoire that would position it as the premiere cultural centre in the country. Its catalogue now includes 35 productions in art forms ranging from drama to dance theatre, but it is opera that dominates.

When people in the West are worried about the ageing of opera attendees, it is the opposite in China
Wei Lanfen, director of productions, NCPA

Opera accounts for nearly three quarters of the NCPA repertoire with 26 productions, encompassing Western classical and Peking opera. And in the wake of a high-definition production boom in performing arts in the West, it's even venturing into making high-definition opera movies.

Compared to established opera houses in the West, which might have several hundred productions in stock, the NCPA repertoire might not be something to be proud of, director of productions Wei Lanfen says. All the same, she takes quiet satisfaction in the progress they have made.

"NCPA started from scratch and what we achieved in the short six years is really encouraging," she says.

Even more heartening is that "our audience is mostly in their 20s and 30s", Wei says.

"When people in the West are worried about the ageing of opera attendees, it is the opposite in China. You hardly see any white-haired people among our audience. This is something which greatly encourages the Western artists who perform here."

Last year, the NCPA staged an 88-day opera festival featuring 12 productions between April and July. What's more, the centre decided to commission crews from Europe to turn three of the operas into HD films.

"This was not an afterthought. The idea of making opera movies came to us when the NCPA was established. We enjoy close relations with some of the top opera houses in the world so we know what is in trend," says Ma Rongguo, head of the NCPA's art resource centre.

"With opera movies, we want to showcase our productions, the NCPA as a lively arts centre and the best Chinese opera singers to a bigger audience in China and the world."

The first work that came to mind was Giuseppe Verdi's Nabucco, which was performed for the first time on the mainland with Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo in the titular role of the Babylonian king and Chinese soprano Sun Xiuwei as Abigaille.

The performance last May not only celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Italian composer's birth but also marked Domingo's change to a baritone. Accentus Music, a German company based in Leipzig with expertise in filming operas, was hired to produce the HD movie.

"They are good at combining the visuals and the music in storytelling. The close-up shots in the film are especially effective," Ma says.

Then in September, a performance of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) was shot with Verona-based soprano He Hui in the lead as Amelia. A production of Giacomo Puccini's Turandot soon followed. Showcasing an all-Chinese cast and directed by veteran stage director Chen Xinyi, the show presented a Chinese interpretation of the story.

"There are many versions of Turandot worldwide. But this is a story set in Beijing and we believe our version is also unique for an international audience. For a Chinese audience, many are familiar with the story and may like to watch it at cinemas if we make it into a movie," Ma says.

A crew from Italian production company Metisfilm Classica shot the latter two operas.

"Opera is a universal language," says Tiziano Mancini, a video director from Metisfilm Classica. "There is a Turandot from the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, there is a Turandot from the Metropolitan Opera in New York and there is a Turandot from the NCPA in Beijing ... We are together in this context."

The Metropolitan Opera in New York started a trend when it began transmitting live performances to cinemas in HD about eight years ago. This proved to be a hit, building US audiences outside the Big Apple as well as drawing opera buffs from Europe and Asia.

These days, the Met Live in HD brings in an audience of about three million people across 66 countries a year and numbers continue to grow, says entrepreneur and opera lover Laurence Scofield, who helped introduce Met opera screenings to Hong Kong cinemas.

"What brings in audiences, what excites people, what gets them in love with this medium … is the quality. That's the key thing," he says.

As a result the trend has begun to appear in other artistic areas even as more companies produce opera in HD.

"So [HD] is also big business in ballet, in stage theatre; the National Theatre of Britain has a very popular product now," Scofield says. "And there are many opera companies which are doing it. Certainly, one of the most well-known is the Royal Opera House, in London. But there are other British companies - Glyndebourne, for example, a much smaller company, also has an HD product. And on the continent there are several major opera houses that are doing this on a regular basis in Vienna, in Milan, in Paris. It's all over the place."

In Beijing, the NCPA seems to have got off to a good start.

"The sound and visuals are great. It is similar to attending a live show," says Warren Mok Wah-lun, the artistic director of Opera Hong Kong, who watched the live performance of Nabucco as well as the subsequent screening of the HD movie. "From the perspective of opera singers, these films keep the memorable performances forever on the screen."

Tang Jianping, director of music composition at the Central Conservatory of Music, has also been impressed. "The close-up shots bring up details which audiences at the live show are unable to see - the subtle changes in the expressions and even the tears on the faces of the actors," he says.

All three HD opera films will be screened during next month's Beijing International Film Festival in cinemas across the capital. Un Ballo in Maschera and Turandot will also be released to international audiences on DVD and Blu-ray formats later this year. However, Nabucco will only be distributed within the mainland due to copyright restrictions on Domingo's appearance.

Although the NCPA hasn't sought to introduce HD transmissions of live performances as the New York Met has done, developing HD products requires considerable and long-term investment.

Scofield cites the Met's videography budget, which excludes entirely the production expenses for what appears on stage, as an example. "The camera crew, the sound, the HD truck sitting outside on the street - all of that - only the HD part comes up to about US$1 million per title."

He adds: "If you're going to get into this business you have to spend not only a lot of time, but also a huge amount of money."

The NCPA will not reveal how much it is spending on producing HD movies. Currently, its operating expenditure adds up to about 500 million yuan (HK$630 million) annually. Ticket sales brought in revenues of 300 million yuan last year, which means it ran at a substantial loss.

But then the centre isn't expected to be able to support itself financially. It is a national-level institution whose operations are being funded jointly by the Beijing municipal authority, which covers 30 per cent of costs, and the central government.

More HD films are in the NCPA pipeline this year: four Western classical productions and one Peking opera. Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro was shot in January using an all-Chinese cast, and the others - Bizet's Carmen along with Verdi's Rigoletto and Othello - are scheduled for later in the year.

Meanwhile, Accentus Music has been busy filming You and Me, a Peking opera created last year by filmmaker Zhang Yimou.

"This is a highly-anticipated original production. It will be the first Peking opera film directed by a Western video director. We are confident of the market potential for the film," Ma says.

Some feel the NCPA's headlong expansion into HD movies seems ill-advised without having done more groundwork. But then China always wants everything in a hurry, Scofield notes, including making big cultural statements.

"The track record of the past 30 years is that they've been able to do a lot," he says.

"There are opera houses and concert halls going up all over the country and some are really beautiful. Of course, people say, but what about the software? You need to have the performers; you need to have the audience.

"I'm sure that will come. It doesn't happen overnight, though. It's a process of cultural evolution."

Opera on the big screen hits the right note in Hong Kong

Since productions by New York's Metropolitan Opera were first screened in Hong Kong cinemas, audiences have grown steadily.

The Met Live in HD shows are a key activity of the Foundation for the Arts and Music in Asia (Fama) and founder Laurence Scofield is delighted with the progress.

"We have had a very, very good track record building up the audience. In the four years since we started, we've had growth of 25 per cent up to the present year and I think we will be on track to increase that to 30 per cent," he says. As tickets cost HK$180 or less - a fraction of the price to see a production at the Lincoln Center - the screenings make The Met's performances accessible not only to opera buffs but also to those who might not normally enjoy Western classical music.

Shown at commercial cinemas, the screenings - more than 160 since 2009 - are a precious opportunity to reach the masses, Scofield says.

"It is the story many people can identify with, despite the language barrier. There are always audiences [at screenings] who have never been to an opera."

Now Fama has also begun free student screenings at universities; they've shown Verdi's Falstaff at Baptist University and 150 people signed up for Saturday's screening at the University of Hong Kong.

"The kids are just overwhelmed by it. Not all of them are music students," Scofield says. "Many are from the business college or from other colleges but it connects with everybody.

"It's a perfect target market. These are the young people who will become the mainstay of Hong Kong's future opera audience."

Sam Olluver