I know a lot of people don't agree with me, but I've always believed in the necessity of building a Grand National Theater in China. Yes, in terms of marginal benefit, the money would probably have been better spent on rural education or poverty alleviation. But a nation as culturally rich as China is needs a venue worthy of its performing arts.
Besides, if we recovered a little bit of government waste, money would have been no problem anyway.
I was involved in an early phase of the feasibility study for the theater around 20 years ago, when I took a group of experts on tour along the West Coast of the United States. They were on a mission to evaluate offerings in the US as they prepared plans for the future national theater. We visited several old theaters in downtown San Francisco as well as its historically important opera house. We drove down to Los Angeles to explore more performing arts halls. The one in Orange County does not have any right angles, we were told.
Nothing I saw on that trip prepared me for what just opened next to the Great Hall of the People. I know the design is controversial, but it's so much better than the other designs that made it into the final competition. I'm no architect, but I believe the best architecture risks becoming just a landmark for tourism if it does not function properly.
By "function" I mean presenting great art on its three stages.
The first signs are encouraging. It seems the theater is not destined to overtake the Great Hall as a setting for politically themed performances. It could so easily have been a place where every province showcases its achievements by staging its own variety shows.
The Grand National Theater drew a lot of press coverage when it started selling standing tickets. Costing just 30 yuan each, the 100 tickets attracted a phalanx of huddled masses, some of whom had queued throughout the night.
I sympathize with them. A decade ago, I snapped up a lot of standing tickets at the San Francisco Opera. I called them "student tickets" because only financially destitute students like me would be willing to stand for a five-hour Wagner opera. Sometimes, when the action on stage came to a standstill, I - and a few fellow standees - would sit down on the floor and just enjoy the glorious music wafting across the hall.
Standing tickets, in my opinion, are the cheapest way to nurture the next generation of classical music lovers. Over here, some pundits see them as further proof of the rich-poor divide. In San Francisco, I was never treated badly because the opera house knew many of us would one day graduate to become regular patrons.
Once I came back to China, I found - to my dismay - tickets so overpriced that most of the people who go to the theater are either institutional ticket buyers or complimentary ticket holders. A lavish show costs money. In the West, a show runs for hundreds, even thousands, of days, while here in China a week is considered a long run. You do the math.
Since the initial production cost is fixed, why not lower the price and run longer so that more people have a chance to be exposed to the magic of the theater? Hopefully the Grand National Theater can create some competition and provide more access to people who otherwise cannot afford to go, even the standing tickets.
As an aside, an acquaintance of mine told me he had come up with the English name the National Center for Performing Arts. It is similar to Lincoln Center or Kennedy Center. But would it replace the more habitual moniker or create confusion? Maybe it'll be best known by its nickname, the Giant Egg.
(China Daily 01/05/2008 page4)