Star Wars

Placido Domingo’s international opera competition Operalia (“like the Olympic games for opera singers”), held this year in Beijing, has just ended.  It’s easy to imagine that veteran Beijing opera star Li Hongtu (李宏图, video below) had something like Plamingo in mind when he gave the following interview to the Culture and Creative Industries Weekly (文化创意产业周刊)

Li Hongtu: “Beijing opera needs to “create stars””

A few days ago, the curtain came down on the very successful Tianjin stop of Beijing’s Beijing-Opera Theaters’ tour “Singing Travels”.   Even so, the director of the Mei Lanfang Beijing Opera Company, Li Hongtu, is filled with apprehension at Beijing opera’s future.  The commercialization and marketing of Beijing opera is still a big problem for the industry.  Li Hongtu believes that only when the Beijing opera companies can make “stars” and “celebrities” will they be able to grab the attention of younger people and cultivate an audience that is accustomed to paying for Beijing opera – changing Beijing opera from something “offered” to something “sold” and setting it on a path towards marketization.  Reporter Jiang Mengwei interviews Li Hongtu.

JMW: The country’s support for Beijing Opera has always been strong, why haven’t Beijing opera troupes been very profitable?

Li Hongtu: In recent years, the country’s support for Beijing Opera has reached its highest level ever.  But looking at things from the point of view of a Beijing Opera company,  the substantial levels of government support aren’t always applied in the ways that would be most crucial.  The country has been developing Beijing opera culture at the macroeconomic level, spending a lot of resources on the maintenance of  opera companies and fewer resources into developing professional guidance for the opera companies to allow them to  enter the marketplace and publicize themselves better.    We also need more introspection: for many years, Beijing opera troupes have principally concerned themselves with questions of repertoire and casting, and devoted little time to thinking about Beijing opera’s position in the marketplace.

JMW: Are the opera companies looking for some kind of government support, for special help earmarked for these “crucial” purposes?

Li Hongtu: For many years, opera companies neglected to learn how to create stars, how to create brand identity.  The capital’s Beijing opera companies relied for 20 years on the three famous stars Du-Wang-Li (Yang-school old-man performer Du Zhenjie, Zhang-school prima donna Wang Rongrong, and Ye-school young-man performer Li Hongtu).    Nowadays, Beijing’s opera companies don’t have any such “stars” or “celebrities” among their young performers.    Because of this, the opera companies not only need to help young performers learn their repertoire, they also need to guide them on how to use the media, to learn from television, film and music how to make stars, how to draw more attention from the public to Beijing opera, how to create a new wave of enthusiasm for Beijing opera.

In addition to this, I would hope for the public good that the government would increase its material support for Beijing opera.   We have been sticking to our plan of bringing Beijing opera into campus life, but a single performance of opera includes lighting, props, transportation costs of at least 60,000 RMB.  New operas and big operas can cost 110,000-120,000 RMB.  The pressures are enormous.  With government support for these campus performances only covering about 15,000-20,000 RMB, we can’t make ends meet: the crew and cast lose their enthusiasm and the level of the performances consequently drops.

We also hope the relevant government departments can assist the opera companies’ enterprises, providing policy support and tax incentives.  For Beijing opera companies to expand into the consumer sector, we need to be able to provide cheaper, even free , tickets to attract audiences that have not yet experienced Beijing opera.  Because of this, we need active participation in Beijing opera’s enterprises, we need substantial support to arouse enthusiasm for these enterprises.

JMW: What kind of support is needed to create “stars” and “celebrities”?

Li Hongtu: In 2010, the capital’s Beijing Opera theaters gave a total of 583 performances.  Each performance was personally “set up” by me – very rarely do other people invite us to come perform.   This is because we don’t have high-profile celebrities and stars.  Every Beijing opera performer has to go through 8-10 years of training, 20-30 years of performance before they have an opportunity to become known by the wider public.   It takes a lot of time to cultivate a singer and their reception in the meantime is not wide.   If there is not a good publicity machine in place, we are going to see fewer and fewer Beijing opera performers.

Regarding Beijing opera, it’s a case of “a fragrant wine still needs an appealing bottle”.  Beijing opera needs to concern itself not only with innovative creations, but more importantly with the operation of market forces.  In this, the abilities of Beijing opera performers are limited.  They are trained in performance skills and developing characters that are easy to grasp.  Few have the ability to exploit their market potential.  Because of this, we will only be able to create big stars and famous celebrities when the opera troupes themselves have firmly established their own brand names, when the opera houses have really tried to use market forces.  In merging Beijing opera with modern methods, we can win a new lease on life.

JMW: Aside from government and corporate support, what other reforms are Beijing opera troupes contemplating?

Li Hongtu: There are many issues, including how to get young talents into top form, how to make our industry bigger and stronger.  Right now, every Beijing opera troupe usually has to rely on personal connections to make performance opportunities happen.   These are the business methods of a small workshop.  The models and climate are fundamentally lacking for us to scale up our activities.  Many years ago, when the average person only had tens of RMB in their pocket, the leading performers at the Mei Lanfang theater earned a thousand RMB.  But today, the income for talented young performers of Beijing opera is not high.  There are some young performers who are having quite a hard time living in Beijing – this could lead to a serious loss for Beijing opera.

However, the essence of Beijing opera is still developing new work, creating outstanding new productions.  Strong content guides us today, not a blind chasing after money or business opportunities which would lower the standards of the art of Beijing opera.  This is a principle to which we must always adhere.

5 thoughts on “Star Wars

  1. Aiyaya, my favorite topic I could rant and ramble about for hours… http://operabeijing.com/?p=3664

    First of all, what’s a superstar?
    I favor Xu Chengbei’s definition: “The jue’er 角儿 is an elusive concept and entity.”
    http://books.google.hu/books?id=EO7LgHBYmHcC&pg=PA54&hl=hu&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false
    A “superstar” has not only superb talent and personal charisma that makes people scream and piss their pants whenever he (possibly she) appears on stage. He has to be adept in innovating, cultivating his performers AND the audience, marketing, management and more.

    Now if you’re looking for such a jue’er nowadays, Hongtu has right, there’s none. (Although triple Plum-winner Shaoxing Opera star Mao Weitao comes pretty close, she’s not only a fine talent but also good at management, loved by the media, worshiped by the audience, young and old.)

    As far as Beijing Jingju Co. is concerned, yes, they still rely on Du-Wang-Li. CNPOC is still pushing Yu-Li into the limelight, those have some personal charisma and people attend their performances, however, Yu’s promotion to vice-president and then handing down his former troupe head status to Li wasn’t necessarily the wisest decision.

    But if we are looking for “celebrities” in the Western meaning of the word, I think there are some young performers out there who have the qualities to be called “stars”.
    I deliberately don’t mention names, because I could be accused with being biased, but there are some performers with a very large and solid young fan-base.
    Another question is the quality of that fan-base… does it matter? Hard to decide.

    Li Hongtu mentions himself that it takes 30-40 years to “ripen” to the level of a capable “star”. With a good publicity machine, it’s possible to turn 20-25 years old talented, yet “unpolished” performers into celebs, but…
    In the times of Mei Lanfang, Ye Shenglan, Li Shaochun, spectators and art lovers had the education and taste to appreciate a jue’er. A sheepflock of brain-dead fans hardly could do that.

    Same old record played again, it’s hard to find the narrow path between popularization and complete sell-out. Li Hongtu’s last two sentences tell it all.

    Sorry for being so long and boring… I’m a notorious commenter. :S

    • Be as “long” and “boring” as you like. Especially since you’re so entertaining at it!

      I don’t really have anything valuable to say on the subject of “stars” – I thought Li Hongtu’s responses were kind of interesting because they went in a direction I wasn’t expecting. People have become so cynical about how easily celebrity is manufactured and manipulated nowadays that I can’t quite decide whether his thoughts are extremely naive or extremely jaded.

      From my limited perspective, I think some of the other things that both you and Li mentioned seem more important right now: arts administration still seems to me to be very haphazardly managed in China; the websites for organizations tend to be spotty; the publicity machine doesn’t seem to be well-oiled. The system for booking venues by companies, from my outsider’s perspective, also seems surprisingly chaotic. I’d think that if they could get their infrastructure in order, the companies and theaters would have an easier time marketing their product.

      There are many other issues that aren’t touched on here: how to support the variety of local and regional operas, how to broaden an international audience, how to encourage real theatrical initiative.

      That said, the present moment always looks like a time of crisis. Chinese opera enjoys certain advantages that Western opera companies could only dream of: a national channel devoted to their art (yes, we can quibble on the programming), the status that opera enjoys as part of the national government’s plan of “soft diplomacy”, the (compared with Western opera) historically recent experience of Chinese opera as a “popular” art form. I can easily imagine ways in which the situation would be much, much worse.

      • So it’s not only my imagination that finding a theater’s and a troupe’s program, booking tickets is somewhat troublesome? I frequently meet people saying: “I missed this.” “I missed that. “Oh my favorite visited my county last week? Bother.”

        Communication with the West, that’s another topic worth a lament. Years went by and they still couldn’t decide the official term for the national opera: jingju, Beijing Opera, Peking Opera?

        You’re right about Western opera, here in Hungary you couldn’t convince an average citizen, especially young ones, to attend a classical music performance. Now and then, thanks to the publicity machine, they buy tickets to the horrible, tasteless concert of some organ or violin virtuoso and that’s all.

        Here in Europe we have Mezzo TV, that’s a good channel.

  2. I don’t think booking tickets is so hard, but my general impression is that finding schedules for all but the biggest theaters is. Even then, performances only seem to be announced 5-8 weeks in advance, which can make planning trips difficult. Major festivals, of course, have a lot of their schedules published 3-5 months in advance. Some of this may just be habit: not releasing performance information too far in advance – but I think that part of the problem is that the schedules themselves seem haphazardly arranged. In certain respects, I find this mild improvisatory quality somewhat admirable (one can’t imagine Western opera companies arranging their affairs like this nowadays!) but the lack of predictability can be an obstacle to building and maintaining a good customer base.

    When theGuangdong Sunduk/Shunde Cantonese opera troupe (广东顺德粤剧团) did a 4-city tour of the US in May, there wasn’t a single website anywhere (in Chinese or in English) which detailed the stops of the tour, and only one city (San Francisco), managed to put out a news release for their leg of the tour. Program information for each of the stops was only detailed on a few posters scattered around the Chinatowns of each city – nowhere else. This is the sort of mistake that I think could be easily rectified with a little more professionalism.

  3. Hello,

    Fern and I have discussed this together before.

    I think the Chinese simply assume no one outside China will be interested and do not make a special effort to market appealing product that will compete with the equivalent released by, for example, the Metropolitan Opera.

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