Associated Press Writer
BEIJING (AP) — It cost more than $400 million. Critics complained about its futuristic Western look in the center of China's capital.
Nonetheless, the 18-month-old National Center for the Performing Arts is turning out to be at least a partial success — something that can't be said for some of the other grand architectural projects that have risen recently in Beijing.
The center, a shining oval dome of glass and titanium rising out of a pool of water, hosted nearly 1,000 shows in its first 13 months and has another 600 booked so far this year. In a city notorious for free ticket giveaways to officials and police, paid ticket sales have been high enough to cover 70 percent of the operating costs, the center's president says.
The true test, though, will come with time. Many theatergoers seem more interested in the unusual building than the performances. Long-term success depends on whether appreciation for the performing arts spreads in China, artists and promoters say.
Yu Long, conductor of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, says the 300 yuan ($44) tickets for most performances are expensive for most Chinese and will be a challenge to sell as curiosity in the building wanes.
Still, the initial success is gratifying for the government. It also illustrates the rapid pace of change in a country where most classical music was all-but banned as "bourgeois" a little more than 30 years ago.
Today, the government subsidizes 30 percent of the center's annual 400 million yuan ($58.6 million) operating cost.
"In the old days they wanted to educate people politically but today they want to educate people from a cultural perspective and from a nationalistic perspective," says Jindong Cai, a Beijing-born conductor who teaches at Stanford University in California. "The government wants to demonstrate how China's leaders are pro-art."
The complex is never expected to be fully self-supporting and, in contrast to many Western venues, it gets next to nothing from corporate sponsors. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., receives 19 percent of its funding from the government, 42 percent from ticket sales and the rest from fundraising.
The Chinese center's music director, conductor Chen Zuohuang, was among millions sent to work in the countryside during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when then Chinese leader Mao Zedong launched an attack on traditional culture.
"In China for many, many different reasons, including political reasons in the past, people have been forbidden from appreciating classical music," Chen says. "But I think things are changing and changing quite quickly."
The center, dubbed the Egg because of its appearance, was designed by French architect Paul Andreu. Opened in December 2007, it sits near Tiananmen Square and the historic imperial palace known as the Forbidden City.
A spacious and light interior houses an opera house, concert hall and theater. Warm wall panels of Brazilian wood contrast with the marble floor.
After some initial bureaucratic infighting, the center appointed three experienced artistic directors for dance, drama, and music. That, together with the government's support, has enabled it to book strong acts, musicians say.
"They are all very professional, they have extensive experience in China and overseas," says Cai, the Stanford conductor.
The center's success contrasts with some other new landmarks.
The $450 million Olympic stadium known as the Bird's Nest is little more than a tourist site. Visitors pay 50 yuan ($7.30) to walk on the stadium floor. Only a handful of events are planned.
The opening of another major project, a Rem Koolhaas-designed headquarters for state broadcaster CCTV, has been delayed after a fire destroyed a luxury hotel going up on the site.
At the performing arts center, visiting performers of Western classical music — from the Chicago Symphony to German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter — have been the most popular, says the center's president, Chen Ping, a career bureaucrat with the Beijing government.
A recent performance of "Tosca" in the cozy 2,398-seat opera house saw audiences excitedly shouting "Bravo" and "Hao," the Chinese word for good.
The center has also staged its own productions of western classics — including a performance this month of the opera "La Boheme" set in contemporary Beijing — along with Peking Opera and Communist revolutionary operas, which are popular with older audiences.
"The tickets sold well because the theater provided the audience a variety of choices with a broad range of products, like a supermarket," says music critic Liu Xuefeng.
But he agrees that the building itself has been an attraction and estimates only a third of the attendees have been true fans of the performing arts. Companies also bought blocks of tickets to reward employees.
While millions of younger Chinese are learning to play classical music, more needs to be done to educate potential audiences, including the youth, experts say.
"So far, China has been an exporter of talent," said Eli Marshall, a composer from Montville, Maine, who lives in Beijing and directs the Beijing Music Ensemble, a chamber group. "The next step is going to bring this talent back, and that's beginning to happen. The next step is to find more professional opportunities for people to stay in the country and that's going to mean audience development."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.