Officials defend controversial new Beijing theatre

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BEIJING, Oct 10 (Reuters) Beijing's National Grand Theatre, which opens in December, has sparked a torrent of criticism for its futuristic oval shape but officials insist it will become a popular landmark.

Sitting next to the monolithic, 1950s Soviet-style Great Hall of the People in central Beijing, the new theatre, nicknamed the ''egg'', looks like a giant UFO by comparison.

Many Beijingers say the building looks out of place, an attitude project manager Gao Yuting rejects.

''Every architectural design, perhaps only except those of residential buildings, is set to cause public controversy. It is inevitable that some people will be against the plans, especially for landmarks,'' Gao told Reuters today.

''But buildings are products of the time. The construction of the Great Hall of the People in the 1950s also met opposition.

Many people thought it was a European building and was incompatible with the Chinese-style surroundings,'' he added.

''Now some people cannot accept the idea of placing such a theatre here, but they will change their minds gradually and the theatre will become an integral and harmonious part of the area.'' Designed by French architect Paul Andreu, the theatre has three main halls -- a 2,416-seat opera house, a 2,017-seat concert hall with pipe organ and a 1,040-seat theatre for plays.

To enter, theatre-goers have to first go down through an underground passage covered with a water-filled glass ceiling, before emerging into the cavernous interior.

As many materials as possible have been sourced locally, such as the 10 types of marble used throughout and the striped, maroon and vermilion silk wall covers of the side theatre.

Trial performances began last month, which included the gun-toting ballerinas of Cultural Revolution classic ''The Red Detachment of Women'', though tickets were distributed by government departments and not publicly sold.

But with just months to go before the end of the year, officials were reluctant to give details on the performance schedule, saying it was still in the planning process, though ''Les Miserables'' in Mandarin will be shown there next November.

''When we know we'll hold a press conference and tell everyone.

I assure you you'll get a very satisfactory answer,'' said Zhu Jing, director of the preparatory office for the National Centre for Performing Arts.

Performances during next year's Beijing Olympics are likewise under wraps, and Zhu could not say if there would be any special events during the Communist Party congress which opens next week.

Tickets will also be made affordable to the poor, and officials expect the government to pick up a third of the operating costs.

As for stories in the Hong Kong media that the first soloist to take to the main stage was not an opera star but former leader and opera enthusiast Jiang Zemin, Zhu said she could not confirm it, after being asked several times.

''As I've already said, the national leadership have paid great attention to the design and building of the National Grand Theatre,'' an exasperated-sounding Zhu said.

REUTERS SZ VC1230

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