China’s trophy projects

Scan the programme for the Guangzhou Opera House for the next few months and it is hard to find much by way of opera. There are a couple of performances of Eugene Onegin in March performed by the Opera Centre of China’s Central Music Academy followed two months later by a couple of nights of Tosca with an international cast supported by the Macao Orchestra in May. And that’s it all the way to the end of August.

This conundrum – of an opera house that cost more than $200m to build but has the concert schedule of an institution flailing financially – might seem baffling at first but it is emblematic of the problems facing China. It has a government that is eager to spend lavishly on trophy projects such as high-speed railways and concert halls but not always the will to manage the minutiae of ensuring that ticket prices are affordable or that programming is adequate.

The GOH is the most extreme example. “You have the GOH with no [resident] symphony and no opera chorus,” says one observer. “Beijing and the local government pitched in to build the opera house but when it comes to programming the attitude is ‘You mean we have to pay for that too?’”

Things started well for the GOH, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, when it opened last May, with performances of Turandot conducted by Lorin Maazel and an international cast of performers, but it has been struggling to develop a decent programme since then. This summer, it will host a Chinese version of the Abba musical Mamma Mia!.

Guangzhou, in fact, has an excellent orchestra, but it plays exclusively at the Xinghai concert hall on an island 2.5km from the opera house. This leaves the house having to import orchestras for performances, often the Macao orchestra from the former Portuguese colony off the tip of southern China.

Concert halls are springing up all over China. In just the past couple of years new venues have opened in Wuhan, Xian and Chongqing – this last a spectacular structure that looks like a battleship hovering by the river.

Getting licences for performances by foreign artists has become more complicated, too – since the pop star Björk yelled “Free Tibet!” on stage in 2008. Recently, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts in China needed separate licences for each city the orchestra performed in.

Now Hong Kong seems to be flirting with cultural gigantism: on March 4 its government announced that it had selected Norman Foster’s master plan for the development of an arts district that will cost HK$22bn to build. Yet Edo de Waart, chief conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, complained last week to the South China Morning Post that he had had difficulty getting funding from the same authorities to hire an extra woodwind player. “This is the curse we in Asia continuously suffer from,” says Oscar Ho, a curator and art critic in Hong Kong. “It is far more difficult to create software than hardware. Cultural management is a complicated profession.”

This tendency for form to weigh more than function may be a boon for architects such as Foster and Hadid but perhaps not for future audiences. Watching the ­Iraq-born Hadid, clad in an Issey Miyake outfit, enter the GOH on February 25 as a thousand flash bulbs went off was like watching a procession from Aida. The GOH may be the apotheosis of a bricks-and-mortar approach to the arts where the venue and, by extension, the architect who built it, are actually the stars.

Rahul Jacob is the FT’s South China correspondent

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