IMAX rolling ahead with ‘ hitching its wagon’ to China
“The success of an opera depends on it engaging the audience emotionally. I think we did our best and have some success,” said Bright Sheng, composer of the new opera Dream of the Red Chamber.
It’s a daunting task to adapt the 18th century Chinese masterpiece novel — which is twice as long as Tolstoy’s War and Peace — into a two-hour Western opera.
“There was tremendous pressure — you need not only to deliver the work, but also an excellent work,” said Sheng, who has been immersed in the opera for the past two years.
The work has drawn media buzz as well as wide attention from the general public since it premiered on Sept 10 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco and Sheng is braced for the critics.
“It’s impossible that
Just like a 60-foot-tall movie screen, IMAX Corporation’s confidence in the Chinese market is hard to miss.
Earlier this year, the giantscreen exhibitor signed a deal with China’s largest cinema operator, Wanda Cinema Line, to add 150 theatres to its circuit over the next six years. Last October, the company’s China subsidiary went public on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
In a recent interview with China Daily, Imax CEO Richard Gelfond explained how the company has “hitched its wagon” to China, the secondlargest movie market in the world and one that’s expected to pass the US as number one by 2017.
Q: How’s Imax doing in China?
Imax has about 350 theatres in China today and another 40 theaters that are scheduled to open over the next several years. We license our everyone will like it,” he said. But the applause, laughter and tears from the audience prove that his goal of “engaging the audience emotionally” has been achieved.
Calling himself a “dilettante redologist” (the term for an academic devoted to studying the classic Chinese novel), Sheng said he first read Dream of the Red Chamber when he was 12 during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) and had read the novel every 10 years or so since, including two more times since getting technology to our partners, about 45 Chinese exhibition chains. Wanda is the largest of them.
In China, we deliver both Hollywood movies and local movies. We work with almost every major studio in China, including China Film Group, Bona Film Group, Wanda, Huayi Brothers and many others. We also work with some of the leading directors, including Zhang Yimou, Feng Xiaogang and Jackie Chan.
Q: Why China?
We had a combination of good judgment and luck. We entered the market in the late ’90s, a time when the multiplex expansion was booming and the quality of Chinese films was really increasing. So we invested capital and resources. Now we have about 100 employees in China, almost all Chinese.
Cinemas in China have grown from around 2,000 to 35,000 (since our entrance), and Imax has grown from five the assignment to write the opera. Sheng said he took the job, commissioned by San Francisco Opera, because the epic novel is great operatic material where music can play an essential role. At the centre of the plot is a love triangle involving Bao Yu, a young aristocratic fop, and his two female cousins — beautiful soulmate Dai Yu and his also beautiful future wife Bao Chai — against the backdrop of the fall of the illustrious Jia clan. “It’s the first novel in Chinese literary history that depicts characters’ detailed sentiments with exquisite screens to 750 — all fueled by Chinese consumers’ increased disposable income, spare time and willingness to the see the best movie experience possible — and that’s Imax.
Q: How does the Chinese market differ from the US?
It’s pretty much growth versus maturity. China is a relatively new market in entertainment, and Chinese consumers really seek out the newest and best experience. People are willing to try different things and see what they like, and if they like it, they go back for more. Fortunately, they like Imax.
In other markets, people may be more used to existing patterns and are less likely to try different things. Also, Chinese consumers tend to be very loyal, so brand and reputation are very important.
The US market is very mature. It is growing very slowly, adding very few screens. The studio system in the US is entrenched, while writing,” said Sheng.
The novel has been adapted countless times into film, drama and twice into popular TV series in China. But unlike formats that rely on dialogue, opera has a lot more to do with expressing the characters’ inner monologues or and exaggerating their unconstrained feelings.
“Music carries emotions that words cannot explain or say,” said Sheng.
One of the most emotionally charged scenes is the Burial of the Flower Petals in Act II, when Dai Yu finds her world growing bleaker as her health continues to decline.
“When spring had fled and beauty is spent, who cares for the fallen petals?” she sings.
“My wife asked me why China is much more dynamic and growing like crazy. There are always new studios, new technology companies and a lot of money pouring in.
Q: Do you foresee any obstacles slowing the company’s expansion in China?
I don’t. A lot of outsiders say that we can’t keep up this the fragile Dai Yu sings in such a loud voice,” said Sheng. “To me, it has to be loud crying, beating one’s bosom as she looks to the heavens to ask these questions.”
Sheng understands that the expression of human emotions is a way to empower a musical work and his music is naturally influenced by his cross-cultural experiences.
Born in 1955 in Shanghai into an intellectual family, he was exposed to traditional Chinese and Western music at a young age. His father, a radiologist, played the jinghu, a two-stringed fiddle, for Peking operas and taught Sheng to play. His mother, an engineer, studied piano growing up and started giving him lessons when he was 4-years-old.
But it was his experience as a percussionist with an art troupe in Xining, a remote northwestern region in China, at the age of 16 that really made him interested in composing and got him fascinated with the sensuality and the roughness of the local folk music.
After graduating from Shanghai Conservatory of Music where he studied composition from 1978-82, Sheng moved to New York City and continued studying composition at Queens College, City University of New York, earning his MA in 1984.
Grounded in the Western growth rate, or real estate is changing, but we are in 121 cities with 48 different partners. I think the appetite for entertainment is big enough in China that over the next five years, I’d be really surprised if there’s anything that slows us down.
You always have to be attuned, as a businessman, to classical tradition, he has freely drawn on his heritage for material and his score is marked with Chinese influences.
He was proclaimed by the MacArthur Foundation in 2001 as “an innovative composer who merges diverse musical customs in works that transcend conventional aesthetic boundaries.”
“I consider myself 100 percent Chinese, and 100 percent American,” said Sheng. “I am thankful to be able to come up with something that is authentically and deeply felt. You have to have a profound understanding of Chinese culture, in this the risks you don’t see. I’m not sure what government policies will be; we’ll have to pay attention to that, and the longterm health of the economy and disposable income — the kinds of things that would be obstacles in any market in the world.
Q: What’s next? What’s new?
We are always innovating and providing new technology. We just invented our next generation “Laser” projection system and installed it in China, and we plan on broadening our business to other areas.
Virtual Reality (VR) is definitely one of them. We just established a joint venture with Google in the US to develop a camera that we’ll use worldwide to create special VR content. We have a special headset, which is like the Imax of VR, with a much larger, more immersive experience. We are launching the first test sites around the world in a few months and I case, and Western culture.”
After the world premiere in San Francisco, the opera will be performed on March 17 and 18 at the Hong Kong Cultural Center as the finale of the 45th annual Hong Kong Arts Festival. Sheng said he was also in talks to take the opera to the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, probably in a Chinese-language version.
“This is the best I’ve done in terms of opera,” said Sheng. “But I still have a long way to go. I think I’ll get better with the next opera and the one after that.” Honors believe one or two of the six will be in China. first
Q: Are Chinese films catching up to Hollywood?
Chinese films are definitely making a lot of progress. There are more skilled cameramen, more skilled directors of photography and more skilled directors. Budgets are going up, hence you’ll see better special effects, higher paid actors and higher production value. Over time, the gap between Hollywood films and Chinese films will narrow.
Of course, the Chinese will have to deal with some issues on the content that they produce. Is it distributable on a worldwide scale? I think that’s the aim, but it hasn’t been achieved yet.
A scene from DreamoftheRedChamber, BRIGHT SHENG Composer, conductor, and pianist
Education • Shanghai Conservatory of Music (1978-82) Queens College, CUNY, MA (1982-84) Columbia University, DMA (1993) • • Bright Sheng (center), composer of the opera Dream of the Red Chamber, with Tim Yip (left), the production designer and Stan Lai (right), the director. Career • •
The Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Music. at the University of Michigan
The Y.K. Pao Distinguished Visiting Professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology • • • MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2001) The American Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2001) The Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (2002)
IMAX Corporation CEO Richard Gelfond (right) and Peggy Gelfond at China Institute’s annual Blue Cloud Gala last Tuesday.
Scan QR code to see more online