Grand designs

The new national theatre in Beijing was designed as a people’s palace, but risks becoming a playgrou

Of all the monoliths that have been constructed in Beijing in preparation for the Olympic Games, Paul Andreu's National Centre for the Performing Arts (the NCPA, or "Egg", for short) is easily the most controversial. Mooted by Zhou Enlai back in the 1950s, but buried during the Cultural Revolution, the project has been condemned as "arrogant" and "un-Chinese" by numerous local architects (possibly piqued at having been denied the commission), not to mention the thousands of hutong dwellers - those former inhabitants of Beijing's old-fashioned courtyards - whose homes it replaced.

Now the NCPA has finally opened, ordinary Chinese who spent seven years watching this moated oval half-dome rise next to the Great Hall of the People and fill the horizon will perhaps be wondering what's in it for them. Has Zhou's vision for a people's palace been rapturously realised? Or will the project, largely initiated by former president Jiang Zemin (a western opera lover and amateur singer), turn out to be a place that flatters the rich and famous while proclaiming China's financial prestige and sophistication?

Not unlike in François Mitterrand's Paris and Stalin's Moscow, vast capital projects of this kind have provided, for successive Chinese leaders, an effective means of laying down one's legacy in stone - or, in this case, glass, titanium and steel. But although the NCPA can really only be rivalled as a statement of civic power by the Forbidden City, across the square, it is just one of a growing number of expensive multi-theatre complexes to have shot up throughout China, all of them proclaiming their international credentials and all designed by top western architects such as Andreu, Carlos Ott and Zaha Hadid. An exhibition at the NCPA places images of the new centre, which cost $570m, alongside equivalents in Sydney, New York and Vienna.

Viewed from Tiananmen Square at night, the vast, translucent bubble resembles an unidentified flying object in suspended animation. It is an electrifying vision. Once inside, however, I found Andreu's theatre gloomy and uninspiring. The 2,398-seat amphitheatre in grey and vermillion lacks a single remarkable or even distinguishing feature, while the swimming-pool acoustic of the colossal foyers serves only to focus attention on the Chinese penchant for competitive throat-clearing. No amount of feng shui can mask its essentially municipal ambience.

When China's first building of this type, Jean-Marie Charpentier's Shanghai Grand Theatre, opened in 1998 the leaders of the Chinese economic powerhouse turned out in their pressed suits and Dior dresses for this sizzling and unprecedented occasion. The inaugural show - an Italian production of Aida - enjoyed the added distinction of showcasing some local talent. Here were home-grown singers from China's burgeoning conservatoires competing successfully in a conventionally western pursuit.

This month's mini-opening of the NCPA struck me, by contrast, as having about as much glamour as the unveiling of a state swimming pool. Po-faced dignitaries joined a host of anorak-clad workers scrambling noisily for their seats, cameras pointing skywards to catch the best shots. Were these "the people" the theatre had been created to serve? Here was an invited audience of doctors, teachers or construction workers from the provinces, worthy patriots who had honoured the nation. But will they still be welcome when they are required to pay for tickets?

Another issue lies in the content of shows. As a receiving (as opposed to producing) house, the NCPA could showcase China's best, the curators taking their pick of dozens of provincial dance troupes and military academies (which boast some of the nation's best ensembles). China has several, admittedly struggling, western opera and ballet companies, not to mention professional groups that perform the Beijing and Kun classical styles of opera. Of course, there is also a plethora of kitschy spectacles, from tap-dancing Shaolin monks to armies of child violinists playing "Edelweiss".

Fearing something from the last category, I was relieved to find that my first experience at the NCPA during its "trial season" was the National Ballet of China's production of The Red Detachment of Women. A classic hybrid written by committee and based on Xie Jin's 1961 film of the same name, this 1971 Cultural Revolution epic was one of only eight approved by Madame Mao and became internationally famous as the ballet presented to Richard Nixon in Beijing the following year. John Adams's opera Nixon in China wittily borrows a segment in which a beautiful young cadre and her gun-toting comrades exact revenge on an evil landlord. Political though it may be, Detachment is at least uniquely Chinese and, one could argue, as historically relevant as Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

However, according to the theatre's press officer Ren Yi, as much as 70 per cent of the fare will come from abroad. Cameron Mackintosh's Les Misérables in Mandarin, destined for next November, will doubtless be the first of a string of money-spinners. Musicals imported lock, stock and barrel, but with Chinese casts, have proved immensely popular, sometimes elbowing everything else out of their way. A starry gala concert at the concert hall, featuring Lang Lang, Vadim Repin and Kathleen Battle and conducted by Seiji Ozawa, is scheduled for New Year's Eve.

The management might have bitten off more than they can chew with their commitment to western opera. A handful of genuine cogno scenti notwithstanding, western opera has been grafted on to the cultural landscape largely for the country's middle classes and their political sponsors, for whom the art form has snob value as well as exotic appeal. Never mind that most Chinese find it as dissonant and nonsensical an art form as westerners do the nasal whooping and clashing cymbals of Beijing opera; the authorities are sticking with it. As Deng Xiaoping declared, "We know many ordinary people find it difficult, but we have to educate them!"

Certain major international companies have expressed interest in performing at the NCPA, among them New York's Metropolitan Opera. However, the importation of such complex repertory requires not only a sense of musical responsibility, but also financial support and rigorous logistical planning. Has this dawned on the management? There is barely a month to go before the Egg opens officially, and yet, at the time of writing, the theatre's management is still to announce the full contents of its first season.

It has the statistics: the NCPA is aiming at 16 companies and 183 shows for the season, claims Ren Yi. It opens officially with Borodin's Prince Igor from the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, which will interlace with the same company's Swan Lake. The rest is murky. Caught off guard in an unplanned meeting, the press officer muddled the few details she had to hand. Turandot would be hosted by the "Turandot Foundation" (presumably the Puccini Foundation), and the "Toulouse Opera" was bringing The King, an opera no one seemed to have heard of. Contracts, she said, "had still to be signed", but she felt fairly sure that the New York and the London Philharmonic Orchestras would appear.

Though this theatre clearly emulates a western model, it is unclear whether ideas about sponsorship and marketing can realistically become part of its agenda. Much of the operating costs of the theatre and the salaries of its 250 staff will be taken care of by the city. As has happened with Beijing's annual arts festival, funds will be made available for political purposes, and the rental for the stage will be waived if there are sound diplomatic reasons for doing so.

The problem for companies which might want to perform at the NCPA but which fall outside this remit will be the high rental costs of the facilities, with limited marketing opportunities but little prospect of recouping much in the way of ticket revenue. Communist China has always dictated that culture should be generally cheap - indeed, free to party members or VIPs. Though sponsors are beginning to emerge, especially among foreign businesses that like the idea of using it as a forum for meeting prospective clients, the government offers no tax incentives.

That could change, but the very short history of market-driven entrepreneurialism in the arts is troubled. Qin Cheng was a skilled promoter of both the Beijing and Forbidden City concert halls, who, from 1998, used skilful marketing and artistic intuition to create an audience willing to pay for good music. He managed also to pay artists a decent wage. That was until 2002, when he was arrested on dubious charges and sent off to a provincial prison.

The Beijing government has appointed three artistic directors and an 18-strong committee to run the NCPA. All want to advance "socialist culture", a nebulous concept and ideological relic of the Cultural Revolution. But, given today's political pressures and the resulting Byzantine financial arrangements, it is possibly unrealistic to expect deregulation of the arts, let alone far-reaching quality control. In future, perhaps, this new and exciting arena can offer the standards required of a global theatre promising to reflect China's diverse culture.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China