Sunny side up

The National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, a superb experience

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06 December 2013

Not surprisingly, it is nicknamed 'The Egg.' It may well become the new landmark of Beijing, a building as distinctive as Sydney Opera House or Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. The National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) is beautiful in itself, both inside and out. Just west of Tienanmen Square, it glitters by day, reflected in an artificial lake, with the steel shell structure clad partly with glazed panels and partly with opaque titanium panels. By night, it becomes an evocative light show. It is often compared to a fried egg, sunny side up. The interiors are spectacular, with a gigantic lobby clad in warm mahogany, and the opera house at the centre in a lacy steel internal structure, flanked by two other theatres.

Designed by French architect Paul Andreu, and inaugurated in December 2007, its construction required the solution of a technical problem. The contractors had to excavate downwards to a depth of 32.5 metres, making it Beijing's deepest foundations, because one of the requirements was that the new building should not exceed the height of the Great Hall of the People. The outer dome is 46 metres high; it is a 22,000 tonne steel shell held up without any internal support. The glazed section forms an inverted V-shape, like curtains opening, 100 metres wide at the base, diminishing to a thin sliver at the apex. One of the unusual features of the building it that its image is never marred by the presence of people. You actually walk in through a glazed tunnel under the water of the lake around it. The building and its lake are in turn set in a belt of parkland, which provides a peaceful habitat, protecting it from noise.

The building had to struggle against intense local criticism both during and after its construction. People said that its Feng Shui is wrong, its shape is wrong, and it is too dominantly visible when practicing Tai Chi in Beihai Park. But it's well worth seeing, even if you only have time for the building itself; you could go inside and have a coffee, which may be accompanied by piano music.

But for the full experience, we recommend going to see a performance. The gigantic structure has several halls, including the Opera Hall, the Music Hall, and the Theatre Hall. The calendar comprises performances by prestigious companies and orchestras from all over the world, such as the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and others, all of whom are performing on the stages of NCPA this autumn. The resident NCPA company's own productions include Un Ballo in Maschera, Turandot, and The Red Guards on Honghu Lake, performed at the highest levels of operatic artistry.

The NCPA also stages performance of Peking Opera, the colourful, traditional form of Chinese theatre, sometimes described as 'Oriental Opera,' that combines music, mime, dance and acrobatics. The genre became popular in the late 18th century, particularly at the Qing Dynasty court, (when the ‘Four Great Anhui Tropes’ brought Anhui opera to Beijing for the 80th birthday of Emperor Qianlong) and it went through many ups and downs over the years. Today, at venues such as the NCPA, you can find classical performances, which feature elaborate costumes and the typically sparsely-furnished stage sets. Peking Opera often includes colourful face painting, with motifs that exaggerate features of character and provide spectators with an easy code of reference: for example, red means loyalty, black signifies candour, and white, cunning. The same sort of symbolism is used on stage: an actor can convey riding on horseback by simply carrying a whip, and a bridge is represented by two chairs on each side of a table. A storm? The performers dance with umbrellas.

The techniques of Peking Opera have also been applied to contemporary works, and even include adaptations of titles such as Romeo and Juliet. A professor from the University of Beijing reported after a visit to Europe in 1986, "Shakespeare is sick in the West, and much in need of Traditional Chinese Medicine." While I don't entirely subscribe to his point of view, there is no doubt that the National Center for the Performing Arts represents an extraordinary combination of western and eastern culture.

National Center for the Performing Arts, No. 2 West Chang'an Avenue, Xicheng District, Beijing
Purchase tickets at the NCPA box office, or call their hotline at +86 10 6655 0000. See what's on at www.chncpa.org