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Olympic Voices

As I write this, it’s just over a week until the start of the 2008 Olympics. Pianist Lang Lang is possibly in a position to become even more famous than he already is, according to David Remnick’s article in the August 4 issue of The New Yorker. Meanwhile, the official announcement just came in two days ago (more about that timing in a moment) of a major Beijing music event set to take place during the Olympics, called Divas in Beijing.

The announced singers for this “diva” event — which in this instance doesn’t limit itself to the dictionary definition of diva as a “female performer” — include sopranos Renée Fleming (August 14, 16), Angela Gheorghiu (August 7), and Sumi Jo (August 11, 13), tenors Marcello Giordani, Jonas Kaufmann (August 14, 16), Salvatore Licitra, and Ramon Vargas; and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (August 14). They will sing in a series of concerts from August 7 to 17 at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People and the Forbidden City Concert Hall. Singers will participate in solo, duet, and ensemble gala concerts with the China National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Nicola Luisotti and Emmanuel Villaume. One of the planned events is a “next generation” Three Tenors event (August 13) with Giordani, Licitra, and Vargas. (Oh, the horror! … I love these guys, especially Vargas, who sang a lovely Rodolfo in the Met’s recent presentation of La Boheme, with co-star Angela Gheorghiu. But enough already with the 3 Ts.)

The event organizers announced that the concerts will be broadcast on television in China and internationally, as well as via the internet. CCTV, China’s leading TV company, will broadcast a series based on the concerts during September, and PBS has plans to air the concerts during October. I’ll be sure to post more details as they become available.

Despite my full expectation that these will be high-glitz events not necessarily of the highbrow sort, it’s hard to imagine opera fans staying away. When you are part of the audience for a live gala event, the rule of the game is to enjoy the sparkly gowns, stay alert for brief moments of vocal brilliance and try to forget the inevitable clunkers. Who will be at these concerts? Tickets are available through various corporate packages, through which large blocks of tickets can be purchased from $450 to $750 a pop. So one may safely assume the answer to that question is: the well-heeled and well-connected. The information on the concerts gives no indication that there will be a live transmission — disappointing, indeed. As the Metropolitan Opera discovered this season, the live HD broadcasts in movie theaters were popular not only because of their low price but because they were live events.

The last-minute nature of these concerts speaks to a phenomenon that soprano Shu-Ying Li referred to in my March interview with her. In her opinion, opera in China has a different planning process from the U.S. and Europe: “Everything is so ‘present.’ We never really plan that far ahead. When we have money, we do it right away.” This makes sense — it’s what happens when you combine the country’s shortage of arts sponsors with its highly competitive market economy. If something is seen as important, money to support it may surface quite suddenly. Normally, of course, top opera singers are booked years in advance. Without that kind of long-range infrastructure and planning, it’s difficult to see opera houses in China offering consistently high-quality performances of complete operas. Meanwhile, one thing is for sure: these Divas in Beijing singers will be getting top dollar — or yuan.

Photos: Angela Gheorghiu, Sumi Jo, Jonas Kaufmann

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.

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