A new landmark will open on Zhuhai’s seafront on October 7th – the 90-metre high Zhuhai Opera House in the shape of two shells is the creation of architect Chen Keshi who was inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s 15th century painting The Birth of Venus. “I was standing on the shore in Zhuhai, and the first idea that came to me was the sun rising over the eastern sea. But the building needed two parts, so I thought of the moon shining over the sea. However, you cannot have the sun and the moon in the sky at the same time… then I saw the painting of The Birth of Venus,” Chen recalls.
And thus was created the design of the Asian moon scallop, scientifically known as amusium pleuronectes, local to the Pearl River Delta. This beautiful specimen is also found in the South China Sea as well as throughout coastal areas of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.
The opera house is built on a 57,680-square-metre plot of reclaimed land on Yeli Island, opposite the city’s main seafront. The larger of its two shells stands 90 metres tall and houses a 1,550-seat concert hall, a lobby, an auditorium and a stage. The smaller rises 60 metres and contains a 500-seat theatre. The structure itself is 59,000 square metres and cost RMB 1.08 billion.
“I am delighted that it has been completed,” exclaims Chen. “It is of inestimable value to Zhuhai and will make [the city] internationally famous. It will become a symbol of the city, like the Sydney Opera House, attracting many tourists as well as lovers of opera. It will be there forever.”
A graduate of the College of Architecture at Tsinghua University, Chen also holds a Ph.D. from Edinburgh University’s College of Social Sciences. For the last 12 years, he has run his own architectural design company in Shenzhen, employing 150 people. He is also Vice-President of the School of Urban Planning and Design at Beijing University.
A long and bumpy road to completion, from initial bid to finishing touches
From the opera house’s original concept to its completion has been a long journey spanning eight years. Now that the completed creation is finally within sight, Chen feels a sense of relief as well as joy. “In eight years, a person [can go] from being a student to a Ph.D. A lot can happen. It was the same with this project. Many things changed – changes in personnel, in companies and in differences of opinion. The greatest difficulty was in getting it built.”
Chen first visited Zhuhai nine years ago, after being invited to join the committee selecting the site for an opera house and music school. The money for the music school did not materialise, and the city government wished to make a major cultural investment, so the site was left entirely for the opera house.
The city then launched a global tender, attracting bids from 33 major architectural firms from the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, France and Switzerland among others. Many renowned architects and firms, including Paul Andreu, who designed Beijing’s National Grand Theatre, as well as the consortiums that respectively designed the capital’s famous Bird’s Nest and Water Cube structures, submitted proposals.
The chairman of the selection committee urged Chen to also submit a proposal. Although responsible for several other ambitious projects across China – including the Lulang International Tourist Town in Tibet, a project funded by the Guangdong provincial government as part of its aid to the region, and “Dream City of China,” a ultra-modernist set of skyscrapers in Shenzhen – Chen was not the most obvious candidate to design an opera house. “I had no experience building opera houses, but the idea intrigued me.” With the inspiration of the two scallop shells in mind, Chen and a team of 30 submitted his design.
Chen’s vision made the first round of cuts and was selected as one of the top nine. Two weeks later, it was shortlisted in the top three. “The three designs were put online, and the people of Zhuhai were invited to vote. When one person pointed out that the design in first place, by an American architect, was a copy of a memorial museum in Hawaii, it was dropped and we won.”
Opera houses are notoriously difficult and complicated structures, and of those in China, foreign architects have designed the vast majority. “This was the first time a Chinese firm won an international bid for an opera house. We won for three reasons: our creative and artistic input and our connections to Zhuhai.”
Chen’s ambitious design received its fair share of criticism. Some doubted the feasibility of the structure while others questioned its capacity for withstanding the typhoons that strike Guangdong every summer. But Chen’s team designed the structure to have a lifespan of 100 years and to weather tropical cyclones of intensity up to 12 on the Beaufort scale, 8-point earthquakes on the Richter scale and wind pressures of 90 kilopascals. To supplement his lack of experience with opera houses, Chen travelled to Paris, London, New York and other international cities to visit over 50 opera houses.
Once construction began, Chen ran into more hurdles. “I have worked in Hong Kong. There, the leading consultant is truly the leader and in control of the project. But not [in mainland China]. In reality, there were many changes, such as those made by the contractors. For example, we wanted to use an Italian marble stone on the outside of the building. It is common in buildings in Hong Kong. But the Beijing contractor on the job did not agree and chose an aluminium material instead. There were also big changes to the interior design. I was in charge only in theory, but that is the system here. There was nothing we could do about it.”
Another amendment was the addition of an underground mall with shops and restaurants. “That is the custom of people here, to shop and have a meal before seeing a performance. You do not find this in the West where there is nothing but pure art in the opera houses.”
While the leadership within Zhuhai’s government changed several times during the eight years of construction, its support for the project never wavered, enabling Chen to hire a German company to design the stage and the machinery used which has experience working on opera houses in Berlin, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and the Copenhagen Opera House.
The structure is comprised of 10,000 tonnes of thin steel, which took 400 days to transform into the two shells (ordinary steel would have required only two to three months). The façade of the larger shell is covered with an LED lighting system, which will project operas live on the outside of the building. The big hall will host large-scale performances such as symphonies, chamber music, operas, ballets, musicals and plays. The smaller theatre will host artistic events, fashion shows, art promotions and corporate meetings. Above the concert hall is a floor for sightseeing, a restaurant and bar and a catwalk for fashion events.
Is it worth it if state subsidies are necessary?
Many in Zhuhai are skeptical that the opera house will break even. With a population of just 1.5 million, only a small proportion has the means to afford the price of high-quality opera and music performances. “All opera houses rely on subsidies,” according to Chen. “That is normal for performances of high art. Traditional Chinese opera was in decline a few years ago in favour of Western opera but has made a comeback in the last one or two years. This project is for public interest. You cannot only consider commercial return. Its influence will be very big and will attract tourists.”
Chen believes the building will create great value for Zhuhai due to its design and location adjacent to the sea. “When the sun rises in the east, it is very beautiful. Culture equals competitiveness. Some cities are very wealthy but are not famous because they are not known for anything. Why do millions of people go to Paris and New York? It is because of culture, which is everlasting. Great Britain used to make cameras, and then the Japanese took the technology from them. Germany made cars; now we Chinese make them. But culture cannot be stolen.”
Long Guangyan, Vice Mayor of Zhuhai, agrees that the opera house is a major project in terms of cultural significance and local spirit, showing off the city’s romantic side and enhancing its attractiveness. “It will be the foundation for making a culturally strong city.” She anticipates that the Zhuhai Opera House will attract visitors from Hong Kong, Macao and the Pearl River Delta, thereby expanding the city’s influence throughout the region. (Macao Magazine, by Mark O’Neill, photo by Eric Tam)