Classical music and media in China 3

by Ken Smith

I was already committed to seeing opening night of the Chinese premiere of Tan Dun’s Tea last Wednesday when tickets were circulating for a “special preview” of the Olympic opening ceremony at the National Stadium. Nah, let’s be honest — I would’ve never gotten a ticket. “We didn’t invite any media guests,” an outraged Beijing Olympic spokeswoman insisted after a two-minute preview of the festivities appeared on South Korean television. But I did have plenty of spies there.

Forget the Paris-based composer Chen Qigang’s intentions to “create something original,” or the New York-based choreographer Shen Wei’s goals of “presenting Chinese culture in a modern way.” Despite having a few genuinely striking moments – two scenes, one with 2008 Chinese drummers and another with presumably the same number of martial artists, are apparently highly effective – the rest of the events unfold (according to a friend who emailed me immediately) in a bland musical wash of “Chinese elevator music” featuring a few traditional instruments and a “speck on stage” at the piano that may or may not have been Lang Lang (The pianist was in Beijing that day, incidentally, to promote the release of a new compilation CD for the Chinese market).

Any pretense to art at the opening ceremony was apparently thrown out the window after an earlier rehearsal on July 16, when uncomprehending senior officials ordered the more esoteric moments removed, leaving the musical team scrambling to re-record their portions of the program. (There is never live music on CCTV; nothing is ever left to chance in the Chinese media.) Apparently, very little of Shen Wei’s influence remains in the show (In this respect, he can commiserate with the Shanghai-based choreographer Duo Duo Huang, who suffered a similar fate at the hands of the same director, Zhang Yimou, with Tan Dun’s First Emperor at the Metropolitan Opera.)

Incidentally, without the athletes’ entrance or the fireworks display, the musical portion runs only about 75 minutes.


Getting back to that news leak on Korean television, the Chinese have been treating this literally as a violation of national security. From the beginning, any breach of confidentiality among those involved in the opening ceremony was punishable by up to seven years in jail. Since the leak, Chinese media have, in no uncertain terms, been ordered to “stop all speculation” about the opening ceremony. All mainland Chinese websites carrying footage of the event have been ordered to delete it.

The footage has also disappeared from Youtube, which cites “a copyright claim by a third party.” It reappeared briefly on, with the heading “the video you weren’t supposed to see,” but has been removed there as well.

At least for the moment, you can still see the Korean footage here. The Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) has already threatened legal action against the broadcaster. They haven’t seemed to acknowledge postings that originated from thousands of invited guests, the vast majority of them carrying mobile phones capable of shooting video clips.

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