Architect Bing Thom explores the world of Chinese opera for new project

Bing Thom may be a renowned architect, but at the moment he says he is deep into researching the traditional art of Chinese opera.

The new focus is due to the fact he's been selected to design the massive new Xiqu Centre in Hong Kong with fellow architect Ronald Lu. The facility will be devoted to the traditional performing art of Chinese opera, a highly stylized combination singing, acting, martial arts, dance, and live music.

He told me the ancient art form is on the verge of a resurgence. "Today, it's very much like flamenco was in the 1920s, when it was a dying art form and [Federico] Garcia Lorca helped revive it," he said in a recent conversation. 

Thom says he is studying to find what he calls the authentic "essence" of Chinese opera in finalizing the design. Among his focuses: the art form originally took place on stages without a proscenium arch, which is a later western convention.

Taking on the project is a bit of a homecoming for Thom, who was born in Hong Kong and came to Canada as a child.

"Chinese opera is called opera but it's totally different than our understanding of western opera," he told me. "It's singing, dancing, acting, music, and acrobatics all into one performance. And if you take western opera back far enough, they were probably from the same tradition. Then in history in the West, singing got separated, acting got separated in acting, and dancing got separated in dancing—and in China this has never happened."

Thom adds that you need only look to Cirque du Soleil or films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to see the form being reinterpreted in modern times.

With a construction budget of approximately CDN$344 million, the Chinese lantern–inspired design in Hong Kong will have a 1,100-seat main theatre, a smaller 400-seat theatre, training facilities, and a space inspired by a traditional teahouse.

Thom has designed other performing-arts buildings such as the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, and he oversaw the creation of Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall.

Now here's hoping that, if this authentic art form really is seeing a revival, we can see more of it on this side of the Pacific.

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