Sunday, August 8, 2010

Arts Playground Sprouts in China

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Arts Playground Sprouts in China

A view of the Guangzhou Opera House, seen from the entrance of the newly opened Guangdong Museum. By JOYCE HOR-CHUNG LAU GUANGZHOU, CHINA — Hong Kong has always looked down on Guangzhou as its poor mainland cousin. But while the affluent former British colony has stalled for years over plans for a massive cultural district, Guangzhou has gone ahead and built one. The latest on the arts, coverage of live events, critical reviews, multimedia extravaganzas and much more. Join the discussion. This southern Chinese city surrounded by factory towns opened its new Guangdong Museum and Guangzhou Opera this spring. On tap are a public library and a children's art center. The government has not put a price tag on the entire project, though media reports have estimated that the four venues will cost 3.4 billion renminbi, about $500 million. Guangzhou hopes to unveil the complex by November, when it plays host to the Asian Games. That is the plan. As is usually the case in China, the hardware was built first and the software is still on its way. Months after the museum's opening in May, workers are drilling and hammering amid piles of dirt and rubble to prepare the rest of the complex. The opera house and the museum are open for business — two beautiful architectural models rising from a junkyard. But the transport hub, taxi stands and pedestrian walkways have not been completed, causing crowd and traffic problems, particularly when the opera lets out in bad weather. Rocco Yim, the Hong Kong architect who designed the museum, reported to cost 900 million renminbi, stood at its entrance and pointed past the construction site to the spaceship-like opera house designed by the London-based architect Zaha Hadid for an estimated 1.4 billion renminbi. "The two will be connected by a wide pedestrian avenue," Mr. Yim said, "so people can walk right from the opera to the museum through open green space. Here will be a large slope where people can lie down in the grass. Roadside pollution will be cut down by diverting vehicular traffic underground." The museum is an enormous cube made of gray and red puzzle pieces that light up with a scarlet glow at night. "I wanted to create the feeling of a lacquered Chinese jewelry box," Mr. Yim said, "an exquisite container holding valuables inside." Natural light floods the museum through its jigsaw-shaped holes and skylights. A walkway and a cube-shaped gallery float above the lobby. Spaces are divided not by walls but by translucent screens, adding to the airiness. There is no stand-out, priceless treasure in the Guangdong Museum's collection — certainly nothing comparable with the Palace Museum in Taipei, say. But there is much southern Chinese folk art, like Chiuchow wood carvings, calligraphy and ink paintings, and the natural history section is definitely child-friendly. Mr. Yim said his favorite room is the vast atrium where life-sized models of whales and dolphins are suspended from the ceiling, flooded in blue light. From there you can look straight down to the dinosaur fossils displayed on the floor below. The opera house — all silvery twists and curves — is the aesthetic opposite of the squarish museum. Its latticework skin covers two structures: a large hall for operas and a concert hall for recitals. Liu Xiaolu, a Guangzhou Opera spokesman, said: "In a short period of time it has changed the cultural scene here, which was relatively limited until recently. Before it was just Beijing and Shanghai. Major international productions — whether it was opera or pop music — would pass right over us and go straight to Hong Kong. We just didn't have the venues. We didn't even have a stage large enough to fit all the swans in Swan Lake. Now it's Guangzhou's turn." In its first two months, the house put on three fully staged operas, all of which were well attended. Mr. Liu noted that they had a good number of visitors from Hong Kong for the opening show, Puccini's "Turandot." Whenever an expensive project is built with state money, questions are raised about its relevance. Lianhe Zaobao, a Chinese-language newspaper in Singapore, asked in an editorial whether top ticket prices for "Turandot," at 2,880 renminbi, were appropriate in a city where the average monthly salary is 3,942 renminbi. Arguably, "Turandot" was an exception, as it was the venue's opening gala and was conducted by Lorin Maazel. Plus, many of the tickets went to officials, organizers and other VIPs But even for the "Mulan" opera — a domestic production that has been on tour for several years — the best seats cost 1,200 renminbi....

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