Inside the world’s newest opera house

Inside the world’s newest opera house


norman lebrecht

January 06, 2016

Derek Gleeson has sent us these fine shot from inside the glittering new Harbin opera house in China, where he is conducting the Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra.

harbin opera3harbin2


  • Max Grimm says:

    Norman, the picture showing the stage is not of the Harbin Opera House but of the new “Harbin Music Hall”, an entirely different building. The stage of the opera house looks like this:

    For those interested, there are more pictures of the opera house’s interior here:

  • John Borstlap says:

    Such modernist, quasi-spectacular opera houses, or concert halls (like Disney in LA), are not built to provide the best possible environment for classical music, but to offer the architect an opportunity to leave a glittering, shiny (and expensive) foot print on the surface of the earth. Since the overwhelming majority of the works performed in such constructions is pre-modernist, a hughe aesthetic and mental dissonant is structurally built-in: the ‘message’ of the building stands in absurdist contrast with what is actually going-on inside. Nobody seems to notice that it is a bit odd, to say the least, to listen to a Mozart symphony, or to see/hear a Verdi opera, in a giant luxury toilet or lady shave, or landed flying saucer. Buildings have, like musical works, their specific aura.

    • Peter Freeman says:

      Spot on, JB, and so eloquently, and elegantly, expressed!

    • Nick says:

      I see absolutely nothing wrong with an architect leaving his personal footprint and the same building being perfectly acceptable for opera. Let’s face it: when the house lights go down, it’s the acoustics and what happens on the stage that are of supreme importance and the audience cannot see much more than that. The architecture by that time hardly matters. How many voices were raised when Bayreuth opened – hardly in the mould of the great opera theatres of the day yet now almost a holy grail.

      I feel zero mental dissonance entering and enjoying a concert at Walt Disney Hall. On the contrary, I feel a sense of excitement that is totally lacking in most older traditionally designed concert buildings.

      • Max Grimm says:

        I agree (although I will say that this particular opera house, to me at least, has an air of airport terminal about it rather than performing arts space).
        It seems, one cannot succeed in making people happy with modern concert halls and opera houses…build it in a modernist style and critics will see it as an architects ego trip/an ostentatious monstrum/a stylistic perversion, out of touch with its surroundings or function; build it in the style of days gone by and critics will see it as a forbidding, elitist arts temple or a stuffy, pretentious and conservative classical music shrine, out of touch with the times and its surroundings.
        At least we can all agree on joint annoyance at cost-overruns and dismal acoustics.

        • Eddie Mars says:

          Oh, let’s build a reproduction of an C18th theatre, eh, Max? With no electric lighting. Or heating. And with the toilets as pissoirs at the end of the garden?

          What fun it would all be.

      • John Borstlap says:

        That may all be true, but before audiences finally sit-down and have their programme booklet properly placed on their lap, have their hair readjusted and pearl necklace arranged, they have passed through a long trajectory from dressing-up at home to that very seat, and what would be wrong with subtly creating a preparatory mood by a physical environment, underlining the difference with the trivial, daily world, instead of confirming this world by modernist excess? Wouldn’t the building itself be an important instrument for creating an appropriate mood? When Joshua Bell played in the hall of a railway station, not many people noticed the music.

        Concerning Bayreuth: would that be a comparable question? Wagner’s theatre did away with an exaggerated social context: boxes, lights that stayed on during the performance, the foyer as the main space instead of the hall itself, etc. etc. all to underline the social spectacle at the expense of the work itself. But Bayreuth has its own decorations, especially in the auditorium, but modestly so: they underline the solemnity of what is going-on on stage and point – in their perspective – towards the work itself. The people who protested against Bayreuth’s new design, obviously would not come for the operas, but for the social spectacle. People protesting against these modernist concert halls, in contrary, would prefer more harmony between the music and its physical environment.

        I find it quite funny to think of all the pre-performance media spectacle at the yearly Bayreuth festival, with VIP’s from politics and industry strotting over the red carpet in impressive poses, and when they are all seated on the hard, miserable chairs, their appearances disappear into the impenetrable darkness and mr Wagner begins his great monologues for a couple of hours.

        Admitted, this whole question of concert/opera buildings is merely about the wrapping paper. But why pouring a good wine into a plastic bag, or serving an opera in a blown-up ladyshave?

    • Eddie Mars says:

      More illiterate tosh from JB.

      So where do you propose they stage operas, Mr Know-It-All???? Perhaps they should build deliberately inadequate falling-down premises to suit you?

      Not that you’ve ever composed an opera in your life.

      • Anne63 says:

        You have no respect whatsoever for opinions you disagree with, do you?

        • Eddie Mars says:

          Tell us where they ought to stage operas – if not in opera houses?

          Or do you, too, have nothing to say on the topic?

          You’re right – I have no respect whatsoever for idiotic opinions.

          • Anne63 says:

            “With no electric lighting. Or heating. And with the toilets as pissoirs”

            “inadequate falling-down premises”

            Nobody is suggesting this, as you know perfectly well. Straw man argument.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Old opera buildings still functioning, have been adapted to modern practical requirements and they go perfectly well together. Also halls like the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and the Musikverein in Vienna, are perfect examples of brilliantly-designed old buildings with perfect acoustics, creating an excellent atmosphere for classical music performances. I don’t think this is a mere opinion but a shared, litterate observation world-wide.

        The Viennese Musikverein was criticized, at the opening, by Hanslick, the feared and conservative music critic, who found the decorations of the gold hall much too much and thus, distracting from the music. But most people found the attempt to express their love of a high-minded art form in a ‘temple of art’, entirely justified and laudable. Today, it is one of the most admired and loved concert halls in the world. Maybe one has to be a musician or a music lover to appreciate the symbolism…. The travel author Simon Winder merely expressed, in his ‘Danubia’, his scorn about the naked busts of the caryatids on the walls, completely ignorant of the classical tradition which inspired the building. During the concert he attended, his mind merely wandered around the marble breasts he had spotted and the meaning behind them. In that sense, with such people, yes, decorations can be distracting.

    • Dave T says:

      Such consternation, however, when my powdered wig is mussed up on the landau ride to Classicaland.

    • Henley Heyn says:

      I sincerely hope you have had the pleasure of the inspired aesthetic and acoustical space that is Disney Hall in LA. It has been a highlight of my concert-making and concert-going life.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    “Too large for Madonna, too smal for the Pope”.

  • NYMike says:

    In the end, what matters most is acoustics, backstage facilities for the performers and audience comfort in seating and other amenities. The wrapping is secondary.

  • Paul Wells says:

    There’s not much need to worry how these halls will affect audiences’ perception of classical music. There is almost no classical music. There are almost no audiences.

    Here is the website for Zaha Hadid’s $200M Guangzhou Opera House. It will be open for three nights in February, dark the rest. In March it will feature an extended run of the excellent London puppet play War Horse, which contains no arias. In April it will show a few simulcasts of London theatre productions, the way movie houses in North America do. And that’s it. In a brief search I could find no plans to show any opera at the Guangzhou Opera House this year, although I may have missed the one or two nights when that will happen.

    Guangzhou’s opera house, as indeed most of the Guangzhou Central Business District, is a white elephant. You could look it up. I hope Harbin’s new hall is busier but offhand I don’t see why it would be.

    • B.Hall says:

      Very interesting comments -MAD architects is a very appropriate name-like many recent buildings for performing arts they have been designed from the outside in with little regard for creating appropriate places for performers and audience. It seems that every city in China has to have an opera house with enormous cookie cutter cruciform stages with costly stage lifts and power flying normally only found in European opera houses with well funded resident western opera companies to need them- certainly not in Harbin and not for Chinese opera or large orchestral music. The second space is particularly puzzling as it’s difficult to see how it could be used for the wide range of performance these smaller theatre attract.
      Better to build a more practical and less lavish facility that suits local audience and performers needs and spend the savings on better musical education