From warm and cosy to grand and imposing, Beijing's standout venues offer a range of styles, programmes and atmospheres. Nancy Pellegrini tells you what to expect.
The classicForbidden City Concert Hall (FCCH)
For Beijing’s best concert experience, the
Forbidden City Concert Hall (FCCH) has it all – programming, ambiance, and an audience-friendly
environment. Enter through the surrounding Zhongshan Park and feel the city
stress vanish into the whispering pines. The front entrance has ticket-takers, not
metal detectors, and although lockers are available, no one measures your
shoulder bag and body blocks you from entering (Poly Theatre, we’re talking to you).
The compact lobby makes the 1400-seat theatre
easily accessible, and its warm and resonant acoustics are unique to Beijing
venues. This makes FCCH ideally suited for anything from Mahlerian-sized orchestras
to Baroque duets. Early Music’s delicate sound is tailored for intimate venues
or churches, but this hall weaves these silken threads into a rich aural
This is just as well, because the FCCH’s annual
Early Music Festival, held every April, is just one example of the hall’s quality-over-quantity
programming. This was the first venue to host Beethoven and Bach cycles, and
the first to champion then-controversial (to box offices) chamber music.
Furthermore, their summer Gateway to Music Festival presents top names in
Western and Chinese traditional music for under 100RMB per ticket. Best of all,
the FCCH ushers have trained their audiences in the art of listening – barring
aberrations, this is a quiet crowd. And if you’re desperate to meet the
musicians, you can slip backstage near the box office. All things considered,
concert experiences don’t come better than this.
Xichang'an Jie (inside Zhongshan Park) Tiananmen, Dongcheng district (6585 5755). See full venue details.
National Centre of Performing Arts (NCPA)
Prior to its 2007 opening, Beijing’s
National Centre of Performing Arts (NCPA) was mired in controversy. A sleek
modern building in the heart of the ancient capital? A glass-and-water design
in a dry, dusty city? Early audiences came for the building, not the show, and
– after snapping a few selfies – would usually leave after intermission. Worse,
the only people louder than the audience were the ushers.
Today’s NCPA is a different planet. The staff
radiates professionalism, while those at the metal detectors only care about
water and cameras – even computer bags sail through (there is a coat check for
larger items). As for programming, Beijing’s behemoth covers ballet, modern
dance, both grand-scale and black-box theatre, and – except during October’s
Beijing Music Festival, which plays elsewhere – classical music’s bigger-ticket
Best of all, by opening Beijing’s first
state-of-the-art opera hall, the NCPA has revolutionised the country’s opera
scene. Opera training had always lagged behind violin and piano – after all,
jobs didn’t exist – but the NCPA aims to create China’s opera industry from the
ground up, collaborating with foreign houses or producing their own Western classics, and creating original productions based on Chinese stories. There is
still work to be done, but the improvement has been staggering.
In addition to the theatre (1,040 seats),
the opera house (2,416 seats) and the concert hall (2,017 seats and lamentable
acoustics), the NCPA’s 140-seat multi-function theatre was designed for chamber
music. Like the opera programme, this set a much-needed national precedent
about a neglected, and – unlike opera – cost-effective musical genre. But as well
as string quartets or chamber duets, the theatre also hosts Edinburgh Fringe
shows and modern dance.
Understand, this is not the place for
experimental performances; the centre’s worthy mission is to elevate the arts
and educate the masses. Groundbreaking programming has included free chamber
concerts in public spaces, art and culture exhibitions, and a biennial
provincial orchestra showcase that gives touring groups credibility while
providing Beijingers with affordable shows. As for regular offerings, you can’t
beat the all-star line-up. But theatregoers beware – this is a massive space
that during popular events can feel like an airport at Christmas. Arrive at
least a half an hour ahead, and give yourself some time to reach the venue,
locate the proper door (harder than you might think) and revel in the
spectacular domed ceilings. The NCPA is a cathedral to the arts, with effects
that keep reverberating.
2 Xi Chang'an Jie, Xicheng district (6655 0000). See full venue details.
Simply put, Penghao is what a theatre
should be. Founded by Wang Xiang, a dentist who loves the arts, this cosy venue
comes complete with café, bar, and rooftop for warm nights. Being nestled in
the Nanluoguxiang area makes it a perfect stop between pre-show dinner/shopping,
and post-show cocktails – at Penghao, you don’t dress up, you don’t pay
ludicrous prices, you simply make theatre the best part of your daily life –
everything that is crucial to arts’ survival.
But Penghao is more than a labour of love.
Programming is outstanding, and usually has attendant workshops. Given the
diminutive size, the theatre features surprisingly stellar guests (mime master
Philipe Bizot is a regular), and national premiers (the first Athol Fugard
drama series – in English). Their Nanluoguxiang international summer festival
has gone from strength to strength (this includes adding English subtitles). But
Penghao also wants to help the home team; last year’s featured Chinese show had
undergone intensive workshopping before selection. True, it missed the mark,
but this theatre is building for the future. And while their budget does not
allow for aggressive marketing, hopefully patrons can get the word out. Penghao
offers excellent small-scale theatre and dance, good food and beverages, and
affordable prices – all in your own backyard.
35 Dongmianhua Hutong, (off Nanluoguxiang), Dongcheng district (6400 6452). See full venue details.
The quiet one
Beijing Concert Hall
Built in 1985 at the behest of the late Li Delun,
China’s father of classical music, Beijing Concert Hall (BJCH) is the city’s oldest
state-of-the-art classical music venue. Historically, BJCH played a vital role
in making China a stop on every international orchestra’s Asia tour; today they
remain a core part of October’s Beijing Music Festival, still the best music
event of every year. These days, programming is sparser than seen at its
Chang’an Street neighbours, but what remains is quality.
The concert experience is the most intimate
in the city; the 1,000 seats feel deceptively cosy, and there’s not a bad view
in the house. Even better, no one stops you at the backstage door (the NCPA is
one step away from retina scans). There’s a small bar in the lobby for pre-show
refreshment, and stairs/restrooms/seats/lockers are all close by – although
they also adhere to strict bag policy. (Attention Beijing theatres: some of us
are coming from work). Better still,
while the acoustics lack the warmth of the FCCH, experts agree they’re the city’s
best, making it the prime location for live recordings. You won’t see many
concerts at the BJCH, but you’ll never see a bad show.
1 Bei Xinhua Jie, Xicheng district (6605 7006). See full venue details.
The rising star
Tianqiao Centre for Performing Arts
Image: Wang Xiaojing
The new kid on the venue block is the
Tianqiao Centre for Performing Arts (TCPA). Unlike Chang’an Street, or even
Nanluoguxiang, Tianqiao’s arts pedigree dates back centuries. The Qing
Dynasty’s Manchu emperors forced the Han Chinese outside the city walls where
they built a performance culture of acrobatics, xiangsheng (stand-up) and feats of strength. These theatres, along
with the newer dedicated ballet theatre, form Tianqiao’s arts district, and the
TCPA is a good fit. Wise enough not to compete with the titans of Chang’an,
this venue focuses on Chinese opera and musical theatre. The centre opened its
doors back in November 2015, so it’s too early to determine a programming
pattern, but their excellent Phantom of
the Opera and Gecko Theatre Company’s Missing
is a good start.
The lobby is like a skating rink of gleaming
marble, and sports an elaborate Chinese gate. The musical theatre venue seats
1,600, but its curvy design creates a surprising intimacy, modelled – according
to theatre management – after Broadway. The Chinese opera venue seats 1,000, while
the 300- to 400-seat “theatre lab” is for experimental works. Clearly TCPA
knows its niche – the rising musical theatre industry, the
government-encouraged Chinese opera revival, and Beijing’s emerging southern
districts. Furthermore, the theatre is connected to a commercial zone of cafes,
restaurants and shops, opening incrementally throughout the year. This is a
distinct plus; upon leaving the NCPA, the FCCH or the BJCH, it’s hard enough to
get a taxi let alone a glass of Merlot, but the TCPA clearly understands the connection
between arts and ancillary businesses. Also, the TCPA boasts of an app that will allow patrons to buy tickets (with free
express delivery for orders over 200RMB), and a WeChat account that can help find parking (北京天桥艺术中心). Finally, realising
that poor transportation has long been the bane of all Tianqiao shows, Beijing
metro’s line eight is set to open under the theatre at the end of the year. This
is vital to the neighbourhood’s arts future, and will make TCPA exciting to
Building 9 Tianqiao Nandajie, Xicheng district (400 635 3355). See full venue details.