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The global research of performing arts is often focused on Western culture, especially in the fields of opera, orchestral music, and theatre. However, many cultures have a long and deep history of great creators and actors who developed unique art styles fused with their traditions. In China, the history of opera and theatre is not an exception, and Chinese composers and playwrights can present a variety of styles to modern audiences. However, most grand performances require an adequately refined place – and the Jiangsu Grand Theatre, located In Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu Province, China, is one of them. This essay considers the contemporary state of arts provision in China and the place the Jiangsu Grand Theatre plays in it.
Arts Provision in China
Worldwide, the place of performing arts continues to change with the new generations and the development of technology. Young people are invested in digital entertainment, and their interest in visiting a theatre or an opera is not as ubiquitous as it may have been decades ago (Jiang, 2019). This, in turn, affects the place of arts in one’s everyday life, especially leisure. In China, however, such spheres and opera and classical music, seem to be thriving. According to Nan (2019), the country’s government pays great attention to developing the performing arts, including financial support for building new venues and musical education. The author considers China a leader in moving the industry forward and a business-savvy professional who looks to the West only to take ideas and improve upon them.
The history of classical music in China can be reviewed from several angles. On the one hand, the country has always had folk music and a variety of performance styles that ware available and loved by the public. One the other hand, the introduction of Western classical music and other foreign genres happened rather recently, some stating that only 40 years ago China was not as open to these performances as it is today (Mellor, 2019). Here, one has to consider the political relations between countries and their exchange of culture as a part of an “opening-up” policy. Now, the integration of traditional Chinese and Western arts creates a diverse culture on the Chinese scene and gives the audiences an opportunity to discover global history.
Furthermore, the attraction of young audiences to Chinese concert halls seems to be a smaller issue than it is in the Western part of the world. While not all teenagers and young adults are invested in orchestral music and opera, some are introduced to classical music from childhood and are encouraged to participate both as listeners and performers. For example, Mellor (2019) cites young musicians for whom classical music is rather new, implying western composers such as Beethoven or Mozart. Nonetheless, they have a deep appreciation of these artists and are interested in creating connections between the two cultures through music. This drive from Chinese musicians has the potential to connect younger audiences to classical music in the country, improving the local engagement.
Another point of interest for younger visitors is the area of traditional performing arts, highly developed and unique to the country. For instance, while opera is usually associated with Italian and German composers, many performances in China have introduced the elements of opera, singing, poetry, dance, and acting to locals. One of the most popular styles is Beijing Opera, a form specific to Chinese culture. Noted as a cultural treasure of China, this form of opera is different from Western performances. It was highly popular in the previous century, but, similar to other types of performing arts, became less sought out due to the cultural change and digitization of entertainment. Nevertheless, Beijing Opera, Kunqu Opera, and other forms of Chinese arts underwent an extensive change to raise interest from new generations (Guo and Wyszomirski, 2019). As a result, most major cities in China have professional theatres responsible for performing these forms of opera specifically, and many performances remain popular to this day.
The competition between Western influence and Chinese tradition is one of the tensions that continue to be a challenge for the industry. While there are many benefits to the introduction of foreign classical music described above, the fear of it replacing Chinese-originated music worries some local performers and audience members. According to Xue, Kerstetter and Hunt (2017), some types of music replace local performance styles or lead to businesses focusing on popular demand rather than cultural preservation.
Here, the risk of losing historical performance details exists for the Chinese art industry, especially if they are maintained only by small theatre groups or individual creators. Xue, Kerstetter and Hunt (2017) provide an example of Chongdu Valley, the residents of which enjoyed the prosperous culture, rural folk dancing and performances. One of the older playwrights says that the younger generation is not invested in the local culture which, along with urbanization and tourism development, puts the form of art under the risk of extinction (Xue, Kerstetter and Hunt, 2017). The government supports the advancement of the performing arts, but this does not guarantee full preservation of small forms of opera or other location-tied cultural phenomena.
However, some new musicians are adamant in fusing traditional performing arts and new interests to bring younger audiences a product that respects culture (Edelman and Coy, 2017). Overall, the state of performing arts in China is different from that in Western countries, which struggle to maintain young audiences’ interest much more. The presence of competition and the lack of access to classical music and performances for large audiences continues to raise barriers for musicians, actors, and visitors alike.
Jiangsu Grand Theatre
In 2013, the Jiangsu Provincial government supported the start of a project for a new theatre located in the capital of the province, Nanjing. The plan for the Jiangsu Grand Theatre was realized by the East China Architectural Design & Research Institute and Marshall Day Acoustics and finished in 2017 (Marshall Day Acoustics, 2020). Currently, it holds the title of the “largest performing arts centre project in China to open in the past 10 years” (Marshall Day Acoustics, 2020, para. 2). Thus, it is one of the symbols of the Chinese government’s aim to support the performing arts.
The theatre’s size is not accidental – it is designed to host a variety of events, including an opera house, a concert hall, a drama theatre, and three conference halls of different sizes to hold other types of performances or meetings. All of these rooms were created to invite from one thousand to three thousand people, a capacity that is on the same level as some of the most renowned opera and concert venues around the world. The scope of the halls allows for massive performances, and the technology used for sound design and acoustics shows the client’s desire to create a challenger for the global industry.
The location for the new theatre also has a reason behind it, the theatre is placed near the Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre. According to Zhu (2015), such placement is beneficial for business, as it creates an entertainment district and saves audiences’ time for transportation. Furthermore, the author states that most cities in China do not have such major buildings for their theatre scene, which limits people’s exposure to this type of leisure (Zhu, 2015). The decision as made in hopes that it would stimulate interest in the performance arts in the province.
In the three years after the theatre’s opening, it hosted a number of local and international orchestras and performers, blending Western classical music, traditional Chinese arts, contemporary composers’ works, and all mentioned above opera forms. Although it does not appear to operate at full capacity at the moment, due to public space restrictions, the venue has enjoyed welcoming guests from Europe and the United States to perform.
Some potential drawbacks of the theatre’s location and design come from the same characteristics as its benefits. The modern and grand design may be unsuitable for smaller, local and rural performances which may not attract a large audience. Similarly, the location of the theatre near the stadium places some visitors in a position of choice. These criteria imply that the theatre’s repertoire may skew towards well-established plays and musical compositions to amass a greater audience and increase the popularity of the performing arts. Nonetheless, these setbacks are incomparable to the potential that this venue can bring to the local industry.
The Progressiveness of the Jiangsu Grand Theatre
As noted above, the Jiangsu Grand Theatre’s size makes it a great addition to the major theatres of the world. Similarly, its architecture, planning, and technology are what turns the large building into a modern and technologically advanced venue. According to the Marshall Day Acoustics (2020), the acoustics of the building were developed to accommodate the unique circular design of the theatre’s halls. In performing arts, the sound qualities of the building are as, if not more, important as the audience’s ability to see the scene from all places in the room. (Marshall Day Acoustics, 2020) designed the opera hall to host unamplified performances without complications, allowing for traditional performances and instruments to shine in the same way as modern electronics do. Moreover, the interior design accounts for sound reverberation and clarity.
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The same approach to innovations is chosen in the concert hall, where the sound has to have an even quality for different types of music. The orchestra also has to deliver a good performance to every row and seat, which means that the interior of the hall has to account for the homogeneity of sound for different positions. The designers developed a project with elliptic walls with waves that create “natural sound diffusion” (Marshall Day Acoustics, 2020, para. 7). The ceiling is also stylized to support high sound quality – a decision that implies a commitment to performance-driven design, rather than visual appeal. The seat placement in the hall differs to accommodate the different goals of orchestral performances, theatre, and opera. Finally, amplified performances are accounted for in the same way as natural sounds – the halls have additional acoustic banners that can be put up temporarily to change the characteristics of the sound. This flexibility is another sign of the thoughtful design that shows the Jiangsu Grand Theatre as a progressive project.
Next, the progressiveness of the Jiangsu Grand Theatre is based on the fact that its creators understood the need to provide different types of venues for theatre, opera, and music performances. While all of these art types involve music and singing, they also deliver different emotions and create connections with the audience based on content. As such, the theatre becomes a universal hub for performance arts-related activities. The separation of halls with equal attention to the quality of each room allows the theatre to host several types of events at the same time without compromising on the delivery.
However, such attention to the interior does not mean that the theatre is not concerned with presentation. In the current global art industry, classical music and opera are often viewed by younger generations as outdated types of entertainment (Dilokkunanant, 2019). This perception urges organisations to modernise, and the design of places where audiences need to go to see performances can be viewed as a part of the appeal. Thus, the Jiangsu Grand Theatre’s planning included this view of performing arts, choosing an elliptical design with complex lighting and specific acoustics’ construction to show the advancement of the arts in people’s lives.
The Role of the Jiangsu Grand Theatre in China’s Arts
The discussion of the theatre’s design and size makes it clear that the venue plays a significant role in the state of Chinese arts provision. It should be noted that the Jiangsu provincial government had planned to build a theatre for years before the project was approved (Zhu, 2015). Thus, local officials saw a need for a venue to promote and support the performing arts. This desire to create a building that was devoted to both the country’s cultural inheritance and the opportunities for cultural exchange plays a significant role in China’s commitment to arts provision. The building has the potential to increase the audience’s knowledge about theatre and orchestral music, raising their participation and bringing new visitors to the province.
Apart from China as a whole, the Jiangsu Grand Theatre can improve the state of the performing arts in the Jiangsu province. As noted by Zhu (2015), the province and its capital did not have such a grand venue for performing, and orchestras and ensembles had smaller halls or rooms that did not have the same acoustics quality. The establishment of the theatre provides artists with an opportunity to participate in larger projects, which may contribute to the revival of local performing art forms. Kunqu Opera and Beijing Opera are internationally famous which gives them some platforms to be explored regardless of the Jiangsu theatre’s existence (Wu, 2017). In contrast, Pingtan Opera, one of the styles that are popular in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, now has more potential to become popular among locals and tourists (Zhu, 2015).
At the same time, the attractiveness of Nanjing for tourists is increased by the presence of a large theatre that offers a variety of Chinese culture-based performances as well as classical Western music. The theatre provides jobs for many trained musicians, conductors, performers, and staff and supports the industry in the country and region. Thus, the financial potential of the Jiangsu Grand Theatre for the arts provision sector should be acknowledged as well. It is vital to explore, however, whether the existence of this theatre endangers the preservation of smaller projects and their audiences. The government’s support of performing arts allowed the Jiangsu Grand Theatre to be built, but it is unclear whether smaller local artists are challenged by this tourist attraction.
Cultural Sector Learning in China and the West
The difference between business approaches to arts provision in China and the West centres on the fact that the Chinese government readily invests in substantial projects that should improve the state of the industry in the long term. As Mellor (2019) finds, western countries should look to China to understand how the industry was able to reinvent itself. The first potential lesson from China is their government support for cultural projects. This strategy implies not only the construction of the Jiangsu Grand Theatre, but also an investment into arts education, promotion, and engagement of young visitors. According to Nan (2019), young people interested in classical music are being invited to receive formal training and continue their career with help from the government. This combination of activities supplies the theatre with performances and provides artists with a venue with significant potential.
In the West, some government support is offered to orchestras and philharmonics. However, the scope of investment is visibly different for China that actively promoted the development of performing arts. Furthermore, China does not limit its musical performances to the region and reality sends orchestras internationally. Thus, the business strategy of the country is the second lesson which includes the combination of promoting traditional and Western music in the country and spreading the knowledge of Chinese culture worldwide. Historically, Chinese arts, similar to other Eastern cultures, were treated as “exotic” and interpreted by Western musicians from the outside point of view. It is possible that the current increase in Chinese musicians’ participation positively influences the audiences’ knowledge and interest in authentic Chinese performances of traditional pieces.
Another lesson is the ability of Chinese orchestras to appeal to young audiences and use their analysis to understand what modern musicians need to learn about the industry. Yo-Yo Ma, one of the most famous cellists at the present time, states that musicians have to reassess themselves and the place of music in their culture and society (Mellor, 2019). He gives lectures to discuss this topic and explain why orchestral performances have an opportunity to capture younger visitors and new generations, on whom the success of the industry lies in the future. In the West, most orchestras are currently struggling to attract young adults to the philharmonic or theatre, and research is focused on developing ways of appealing to the new demographic. Dilokkunanant (2019) and Jiang (2019) find that young generations want a different connection to the music. Ma’s words mirror this advice, showing that the arts provision in China has used these strategies and was able to capture an audience with classical and folk music.
The balance between folk music rooted in Chinese culture and Western classical music is a problem that China is dealing with at the moment. This is a problem in which both parts of the world can exchange their experience. On the one hand, Western classical music is ubiquitous in the minds of all musicians worldwide – such names s Bach and Beethoven appear in people’s minds when they think about orchestral music. Similarly, the opera scene is dominated by Western ideas, even when they interpret other cultures (Leone, Surace and Zeng, 2019). In this case, the Chinese arts provision can look into the history of why classical music is considered “classical” and use this information to propel the popularity of Chinese composers.
At the same time, both the West and China need to embrace modernity and engage with new styles of music and theatre for performances. In the case of China, an additional need to preserve folk music exists, and it is unclear whether Europe can offer advice in this segment. Chinese opera forms, for example, are in the state of reinvention, as many actors are now being trained to perform the roles that were forgotten due to cultural revolutions. Bao (2017) provides an example of Beijing Opera which recently rediscovered gender exploration on stage and began changing its approach to casting and teaching its actors. Similarly, a potential exists for orchestras to use folk motifs and blend them with music that appeals to younger audiences.
The state of arts provision in China is on the path toward improvement and growth. Government support that encompasses construction, education, and promotion is a significant part of this strategy. The establishment of the Jiangsu Grand Theatre is a sign that the view of performing arts is improving in people’s eyes. The theatre is technologically advanced, offering a design that combines visual appeal and commitment to sound quality. The versatility of the venues and their range means that orchestral music, opera and theatre have a place in the current industry and that China is determined to improve its cultural input. Currently, the business strategy of the country and its ability to redesign its industry for younger audiences provides lessons for the West.
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