Posts Tagged ‘Xuefeng’

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.”