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.