Posts Tagged ‘ken smith’

China singing a new tune?

Monday, December 1st, 2008

by Ken Smith

Making the rounds among China music-watchers the past couple of weeks has been a report that, following the fuss over lip-synching at the Beijing Olympics, the Ministry of Culture may be clamping down on professional performers “faking it.” First reported in the Guardian, then picked up in numerous news sites and chatrooms, the Ministry will start pulling performing licenses of any professional singer or musician caught miming more than once in a two-year period.

Does anyone really believe this will happen? The article cites the Shanghai Noon News’s claim that less than 20 percent of performers in China actually sing their shows live. There’s a reason for this. China’s regulations may be cruel, silly and short-sighted, but they are rarely arbitrary. Pop music is often mimed for the same reason that television never goes live. The last thing the government really wants, or will even tolerate, is spontaneity. For anyone who gives this report a shred of credibility, I have only one word: Bjork.


Thanksgiving Day saw a performance of the Verdi Requiem by the China Philharmonic Orchestra at Beijing’s Forbidden City Concert Hall commemorating the Karajan Centenary. Ordinarily, that would hardly be worth more than a news brief, except that this particular performance was one that, according to a Telegraph article (carried by, was under threat due to a supposed “ban on Western religious music.”

The original article, which immediately fueled conspiracy theories both in Europe and China, is a masterpiece of bad reporting – a loosely strung series of half-facts with no apparent context. Particularly irritating is the fact that the Chinese sources are anonymous and untraceable. Each point, too, is clearly refutable to anyone with a passing knowledge of the Beijing Music Festival, one of the supposed victims of the ban. Admittedly, last Thursday’s Requiem was originally supposed to be part of the Festival, but this was more a matter of the China Phil not having its act together than a censorship decree. (Nor was Handel’s Messiah “banned” from the public – it was intended from the beginning to play at Beijing’s Wangfujing Church, which with its limited seating capacity of 400 never sells tickets to the public anyway.)

Even the very timing of the story was suspicious, coming out as it did on China’s October 1 national holiday and opening night of the Beijing Festival, ensuring that no one would be able to refute the article for several days. It makes me wonder what disgruntled musician or manager placed that story, and why.

A few weeks ago in Shanghai, a Chinese reporter asked me in hushed tones if I thought there was any truth to China’s alleged sacred music ban. “You tell me,” I said. “Better yet, tell me if any reputable source anywhere in the world follows this up with even a hint of substance.” So far, I have yet to hear a word.

Shanghaied by Asian Orchestras

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

by Ken Smith

I’d just landed in Shanghai last Saturday, getting ready to compare the Shanghai Opera House’s production of Il trittico with the Il trittico I’d seen the night before in Macau, when I stumbled upon the Alliance of Asia/Pacific Region Orchestras, which was having its annual conference a few blocks away from where I was staying.

A conference session on orchestra development and fundraising normally wouldn’t generate many sparks, but given the recent “financial tsunami” it was the hot topic of the day. No matter the organization’s funding structure – and there was a tremendous array given the geographical and social-political range of the attendees, from New Zealand to Vietnam – people wanted to know how to keep those dollars – and yen, and won – flowing.

Interestingly enough, orchestras that are exclusively state-funded were talking the same language as those cultivating private donations. Both sides concluded that guanxi only gets your foot in the door; from there, organizations need to identify and evaluate their own goals and priorities.

As Hong Kong Philharmonic chief executive Timothy Calnin pointed out, it’s no longer enough that board members (or their spouses) personally like music and want to be a part of it. “Continued success depends on finding ways to make your objectives consistent with the goals of your funding partners,” Calnin said. “That’s the only way to maintain your alliances long term.”

It’s a valid point whether your money comes from an investment bank or from a line item in the public budget. It should go without saying in developed countries, although I can think of a rather prominent American orchestra whose recent sojourn in North Korea garnered absolutely no new business for its tour sponsor. In China, where the government has been itching to get out of the culture business, and where any calamity from blizzards to earthquakes has been used as an excuse to divert money away from the arts, this is a crucial strategy for the future.


Neither Deborah Borda nor Tan Dun, both of whom were on the preliminary schedule, spoke at last weekend’s Shanghai summit (Tan, for one, was in Amsterdam rehearsing a new production of Marco Polo) but Norman Lebrecht was on hand to rehash themes from his recent book The Life and Death of Classical Music, complete with a coda on its coming resurrection in the post-CD age.

The short answer? Youtube.

In researching a recent talk, Lebrecht had gone to the video-sharing website in search of the theme from Brahms’s First Symphony. All he could find, he lamented, was one posting by a regional orchestra in California. Why, he asked, didn’t more musicians and music lovers use the site?

Well, I’m not sure exactly when Lebrecht last logged on, but I went home and searched for Brahms’s First. After hearing Bernstein, Karajan, Giulini, De Sabata and Kleiber, I figured I’d had enough Brahms for the time being.  And these were only the commercial recordings.

Think of the time in the very near future – and this rate, probably tomorrow morning – when musicians of all talent levels won’t even have to show up to audition in person. Youtube, as Lebrecht indicated, may well replace the recording as the musician’s business card. 

Chinese lessons in San Francisco

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

by Ken Smith

Although San Francisco is rather famously open to Asian influences, this season’s production of The Bonesetter’s Daughter has taught people at San Francisco Opera a few new expressions in Chinese. Take “huang niu” – literally, “yellow cow” – which is what the Chinese call scalpers for any public event or transportation requiring a ticket.

In China, this usually refers to organized gangs who buy tickets at the venue and sell them elsewhere for a profit. Sometimes they just sell counterfeit tickets, avoiding the initial outlay entirely.  No one – and there are a lot of people from China involved in this production – has been able to tell me exactly where the phrase comes from, but at the high end – getting a train ticket at holiday time, for example – the market value is about 40 percent more than the printed price.

The situation in San Francisco is not so structured. Rather, the small herd of yellow cows gathering at the opera – none of whom were Asian, by the way – has more to do with a run on tickets after a glowing review in the San Francisco Chronicle. Comments from national critics have been more mixed, but the hometown rave has turned the opera (based on the novel by local novelist Amy Tan) into a Bay Area block party. The final performance is Oct. 3, and there were a few tickets available on Craigslist and other e-sources. 


A few days ago, as I was giving a pre-concert talk for Bonesetter’s Daughter, I looked up to see a familiar face in the crowd: Liu Xuefeng, one of the most active and independent-minded music critics in Beijing.

Xuefeng is quite famous at home for regularly attending festivals like Bayreuth and Salzburg that most critics in China still treat as quasi-mythic entities. He’s reported from La Scala, Covent Garden and the Vienna State Opera, but never before from America. I made sure to catch up with him in San Francisco Opera’s pressroom at intermission.

“The dedication of the audience is so much greater here than in Europe,” he said. “The number of people attending a pre-concert talk, and their level of concentration, was remarkable. We’re just starting to present public lectures like this in China, but they are usually feature events in themselves. We should also implement talks before every performance. Many operas that are standard in the West are still new in China.”

I didn’t want to tell him that the attendance was due more to a particularly San Francisco subject matter and the celebrity of Amy Tan than to the regular opera audience, but he quickly moved on to discuss Simon Boccanegra and the final dress rehearsal of Die tote Stadt, which he’d seen earlier that week. After seeing three events on three afternoons, Xuefeng is now hooked on matinee performances, which rarely take place in China.

“There’s a huge level of acceptance in the audience here,” he said. “European audiences would be far more picky about seeing three such completely different operas in the same place.”

Since I had a pretty good idea by now how the Chinese press is treated, I asked him what he thought of the SFO press office and what China had to learn.  “First of all, there’s mutual respect here,” he said. “Respect breeds responsibility. The ultimate goal is to serve the art, not for individual gain. In China, there is too much bartering for mutual benefit, and this is false both to your readers and to the art.”

I know a bit about such bartering in China, where journalists get packets of money (the standard payment is about 200RMB [US$25] to attend a press conference, 1000 RMB [US$120] to write more than a few lines). But critics often have to temper their reviews, lest they be blacklisted by press departments and denied tickets or any media assistance for their publication.

“Also, they’re very good on program content  – the program book itself and the press materials, both of which are underdeveloped in China,” he continued. “There is attention to detail and a level of preparation here that is not the rushing around at the last minute we’re used to.”

I wanted to tell Xuefeng that there was plenty of last-minute rushing around at the SFO press office, especially this early in the season, but he did have a point. I did break down and tell him that the Chinese-language materials were prepared especially for Bonesetter and not to expect them for, say, Porgy and Bess later in the season.

“Promotion for arts organizations is very new in China,” he added. “Five years ago, you couldn’t even get production shots to run with a review. Now presenters and critics both have to think about how to sustain and develop that relationship, because that is also the way they can cultivate their audience.”


A Cloudy ‘Tea’

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

by Ken Smith

Back before the Olympic madness in Beijing and my full immersion in The Bonesetter’s Daughter in San Francisco, I put out word for anyone to help explain what precisely was being premiered in the “global premiere” of Tan Dun’s Tea at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts. I’ve just recently noticed that the director Chiang Ching herself has addressed her production at length in the September issue of Ming Pao Monthly; her account of bringing Tea to China shows how ugly the performance climate there can still be.

In a five-page article, Chiang tells the highbrow Hong Kong journal that her frustrations with the production last July began when the Department of Commerce decided that her name – precisely the same characters as the infamous Madame Mao – was deemed too sensitive to use during the Olympic season. “In 1987 I was invited on an eight-city modern-dance tour of China,” the choreographer-turned-director writes. “No presenters told me I needed to change my name. But 21 years after [China’s] reform the right to use my own name was taken away.”

A few weeks later, she discovered that representatives from the Ministry of Culture had attended rehearsals unannounced. The Beijing production, which she admits was “largely based” on the version premiered in Stockholm in November 2007, was deemed “pornographic and unsuitable” for the public stage in China. Though nothing was put in writing, the Ministry did uncharacteristically explain its reasons: (1) “when the male and female characters are hugging in the second act, you cannot have light on them,” and (2) “they cannot be shown later rolling on the floor.”

Then came the projections. Chiang’s original concept in Stockholm featured a series of childlike sketches by the artist Ding Xiongquan portraying animals mating projected on bolts of white silk while dancers paraded around them. In Beijing, Chiang got a late-night phone call telling her that she had to “remove the mammals.” The next day the Ministry cleared the revised projections, but told her that the dancers and the silk were still “unclean.” The images ended up being projected on the back wall.

At each step of the way, Chiang kept asking to have the Ministry’s demands put in writing, or to speak to the leaders directly. Neither request was granted. “People would only say, ‘I understand your situation, but I can’t help you,’” she writes. “They would say, ‘The Olympics is a special time. We cannot have a single wrong.’”

From a safe distance at Sweden, Chiang ponders the past year in China: “Is this what is happening to the country? Is this the current climate?”

China Overseas

Saturday, September 13th, 2008

by Ken Smith

Okay, now I have to come clean. For most of the last month I’ve been away from China. Mostly I’ve been in San Francisco for rehearsals of The Bonesetter’s Daughter opera by Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan. This is not exactly getting away from China, since most of the cast and several of the instrumentalists are Chinese, but more on that later. Mostly I’ve been awaiting the release of Fate! Luck! Chance!, my book about the opera and the creative process behind it.

On the way to San Francisco, though, I stopped in Manila for the local premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Golden Child. This was a bit of a homecoming for the playwright, who based his 1997 Obie Award-winning work on an oral history he conducted in his childhood with his grandmother in the Philippines. In the play, a Chinese trader converts to Christianity, inspired by the modernity of business associates in Manila; the key figure, though, is Second Wife, whose opportunistic power play disposes of his other two wives and abandons the family’s Chinese values.

Now for the local subplot: most of the relatives in Manila – including Doreen Yu, the Manila journalist and arts activist who was largely responsible for the Philippine production –were descendants of Second Wife, who comes off as a “royal bitch” (to quote the playwright). I love a good family squabble, so I’d booked ringside seats.

Alas, the relatives were good sports. Judging by the intermission chatter, Second Wife was just a feisty realist who did what she had to do in changing times. First Wife’s suicide by opium overdose, though, was judged a tad harsh.

What resonated more, though, was the play’s narrative technique, where the ghost of the DHH-surrogate’s mother appears and hauls him into the past, where she relives her youth and he assumes the role of his grandfather. It’s more or less the same technique being used in The Bonesetter’s Daughter.

I pulled David aside for a few moments at the opening night reception to ask him about that. He found it rather suspicious that Amy Tan had been writing her 2001 novel around the time that Golden Child was on Broadway, until I pointed out that ghost-ancestor thing was not in the original book but only in the stage production.

“Well, I guess it’s okay,” he said, smiling. “I mean, I got the bit about eating opium from The Joy Luck Club.”


Playing next door to Golden Child in the main theatre at the Cultural Center of the Philippines was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella staring Lea Salonga. The event was rather appropriate, given that female domestic workers are the country’s principal export, and that the Philippine-born Tony Award-winner is something of a Cinderella story herself. Having the country’s most accomplished singer-actress back home in this production meant that thousands of local fans who know only her recordings finally got the chance to see her perform live.

What’s potentially more exciting, though, is what this might mean in the future. After Cinderella ends its run in Manila, Broadway Asia Entertainment plans to move the production to China, opening in Xian and moving later to at least a dozen other cities. Judging by bars and lounges throughout Asia, musicians are another major export of Philippines; given the growing Chinese addiction to Broadway musicals, this could well be a model for the future. China may draw fire from subcontracting in other industries, but as far as theatre is concerned, the country can now outsource its out-of-town tryouts.


Classical music and media in China 4

Monday, August 11th, 2008

by Ken Smith

After my review in the Financial Times asked what exactly was new in the “global premiere” of “the Chinese version” of Tan Dun’s opera Tea at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, I got an email from someone insisting that, based on the photo that ran in the print edition of the FT, the production is indeed the one that premiered last fall at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic’s International Composer’s Festival. I’m still keen to know what was new here. Interestingly enough, the sole credit given to the Stockholm Philharmonic in the program (in the smallest type possible) concerned the most problematic element of the evening. During a love scene on stage between the main characters, a Japanese monk and a Chinese princess, the scene incorporates background projections of animals mating. The version created for Stockholm apparently went well beyond the birds and the bees, and Chinese censors balked. A shortened version was later approved, leaving the production team to interpret the censors’ silent ruling as “No mammals.”


One of the more remarkable things about the marketing for the Tea premiere last week was the absence of the director’s name in Chinese. Placed awkwardly on a vertical Chinese design were two words in English you had to turn your head to read: the name “Chiang Ching.” The problem for the Taiwan-born, American-based dancer-director – who is probably most famous in operatic circles for choreographing Franco Zeffirelli’s Turandot for the Met – is that she shares the exact given name of the most hated women in modern China. Not only did the Ministry of Culture refuse to print her Chinese name in public – it did appear in the program – but they acknowledged her only in the officially detested Wade-Giles method of Romanization (still the standard in Taiwan) rather than the mainland system of pinyin, where she would be “Jiang Qing,” the same as the infamous wife of Mao Zedong, who remains she-who-must-not-be-named in the Chinese media. In this regard, Tan could’ve learned a lesson from his Columbia University colleague Bright Sheng, whose opera “Madame Mao,” written for the Santa Fe Opera in 2003, is still unmentioned in the Chinese media. Sheng was widely assumed to have been blacklisted from China performances for several seasons after Santa Fe had announced the commission.