Coronavirus upstages the performing arts

While organizing ticket refunds amid the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, some theaters in Shanghai are staying connected with loyal audiences through online platforms.

The lights are out and the curtains closed at Shanghai performing arts centers amid the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, with concerts, dance, dramas, musicals and operas canceled or postponed.

Most of the affected performances so far were scheduled this month and next, with a few in April and May. The last performance in the current cancelation list is Moscow Classical Ballet’s “Swan Lake,” originally scheduled for May 22 and 23 at the Majestic Theater.

More performance changes may come in the following weeks or months, depending on the course of the epidemic.

While organizing ticket refunds, some theaters are staying connected with loyal audiences through online platforms.

The Shanghai Oriental Art Center has prepared online lectures with content borrowed from its offline lectures organized in the past year.

Artists and musicians featured in the lectures include Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, Chinese pop song writer Yao Qian, pianist Li Yundi and singer Jia Fan. They share their stories and views about art, history and youth.

The Shanghai Oriental Art Center’s art education department introduced online vocal courses, encouraging viewers to practice with family members and record themselves. Selected videos sent back by viewers will be posted on the center’s WeChat account. Other online courses cover street dance, opera singing and paper cutting.

By this week, more than 20,000 tickets for 20 performances scheduled at the center from January 27 to February 29 have been refunded through online channels. Some performances have been rescheduled to the second half of the year, including a Tchaikovsky classic concert (moved from February 28 to October 4) and a concert featuring Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi’s works for Miyazaki Hayao’s animations (moved from February 29 to October 5).

“The refund policy for these performances is guaranteed, so audiences need not worry,” said Lei Wen, general manager of Shanghai Oriental Art Center. “They can get their refunds any time after our operations resume.” 

Lei said the center has been contacting some world-renowned troupes to obtain copyrights to their performance videos. The troupes have visited Shanghai before, and the center hopes to share the videos through online platforms as “compensation” to its audiences.

Currently, about 30 percent of the venue’s staff are back at work, mostly in property management and security departments. The box office is closed, but staff are answering calls from the public. The center has its public area disinfected every day.

“We are considering making a booklet to record the steps we have taken to address the epidemic,” Lei said. “It could become a very useful safety guideline for international theaters facing similar circumstances.”

The SAIC Shanghai Culture Square canceled or postponed 20 performances, involving more than 6,800 sold tickets. 

The venue’s ticket center operated 11 hours a day during the Spring Festival holiday and has completed the refunding of nearly 5,800 tickets as of this week. The center remains open, but ticket holders are encouraged to seek refunds by phone or online.

The venue’s parking lot is open to serve the public. According to a management staffer, most people parking their cars there head for nearby Ruijin Hospital. The parking area is disinfected regularly and the temperatures of all drivers are taken before vehicles are allowed in.

Despite the cancelation of performances, Culture Square continues to promote the music arts through online platforms like WeChat and Weibo. Musical performers have been invited to recommend their favorite songs and share stories behind the songs through self-made videos. The videos are updated twice a week.

The Culture Square’s 2020 Musical Singing Contest, which was scheduled in February and March, has also been postponed.

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra has been making full use of its social platform accounts to keep in touch with music lovers since the end of last month. Its WeChat account has been sharing the orchestra’s concert recordings and musical instrument courses. The courses are offered in the form of self-made videos by orchestra members.

“The online concerts are enjoyable,” Li Ren, a classical music fan, told Shanghai Daily. “They are not limited by time or space, and I listen to them while doing work around the house.”

Li said he usually attends musical concerts twice a month. Given the unexpected situation, online concerts are the next best thing.

“The shortcomings are obvious though,” he added. “For classical music, online recordings don’t provide the sense of immersion and sound effect that one gets in a music hall. Still, it’s better than nothing.”

The Shanghai Grand Theater has introduced “art class” online courses this week. They are drawn from the theater’s offline lecture series aimed at popularizing arts-related public education.

The online courses have selected content from offline lectures of the past five years. They have been made into audio programs running 15-20 minutes and will be gradually made accessible through the theater’s official WeChat account.

The first group of notables featured in the online courses include Shanghai Conservatory of Music researcher Han Bin, Shanghai Opera House Vice Director Wu Jie, and Wang Yong, director of Shanghai University’s music college.

The Grand Theater canceled or postponed all performances and activities scheduled in February and March. The theater’s ticket office has been in full operation, and more than 12,800 tickets have been refunded through online and offline channels.

“Some foreigner ticket holders don’t have a Chinese bank account to receive the refunds,” said Hua Shuyun, manager of the theater’s marketing department. “We suggest they seek assistance from Chinese friends and use their Chinese bank accounts as a transit method.”

He added: “For elderly people showing up in person, we give them refunds immediately.”

Apart from ticket refunds, the theater has been busy communicating with foreign troupes whose performances have been affected by the closure.

“The challenge we will be facing is not how to reschedule the performances, but rather how to make audiences feel safe again in a public space,” said Zhang Xiaoding, general manager of the Shanghai Grand Theater. “That is a problem we need to start considering now.”

Apart from venue managers, performing artists are looking forward to a quick end to the epidemic closures.

“I hope the virus interference will come to an end by the middle of the year,” said Kay Zhang, an actor at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center, which canceled 30 performances of three plays scheduled between February 11 and March 22.

The actor told Shanghai Daily that all rehearsals and creative work have been suspended since Spring Festival.

“We are prepared in case all performances in the first half of this year are affected,” Zhang said. “New drama projects are on hold. Our production department is already making plans for the second half of the year.”