Financial curtains for Puccini in Peking as Asian crisis bites

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IT WAS acclaimed an artistic triumph, but the financial performance of Turandot in the "Forbidden City" has proved a flop, a victim of Asia's economic crisis and China's ability to get the better of many foreign businessmen.

The final cost of staging Puccini's opera earlier this month was $14m (pounds 8.5m). It was directed by Zhang Yimou, China's best-known film director, and conducted by Zubin Mehta, in the former imperial Ancestral Hall. But for Michael Ecker, executive producer, the best financial outcome he can envisage for his private company, Opera on Original Site (OOS), will be break-even.

"Moneywise, operas are not really big moneymakers. But we worked on Turandot for nearly five years. From that point of view, it was a disappointing project," he said.

Lower-than-expected sponsorship, flat ticket demand in recession-hit Asia, and too many unsold tickets, costing between $150 and $1,250, all contributed. "Japan especially was very disappointing, and South-East Asia too," Mr Ecker said.

China, on the other hand, will have done reasonably well from the opera, set in the Forbidden City, which tells of a Chinese princess who has the suitors unable to answer her riddles beheaded. Opera on Original Site had to pay 4 million yuan (pounds 300,000) to use the venue.

"But there were a lot of other costs," Mr Ecker said. "For example, we paid them a few million yuan for the electricity and the cables. So the Ministry of Culture, the Cultural Relics Bureau, everybody, got some money from this project. And approximately $80m-$100m went into the Chinese tourism industry, because a lot of the audience made trips through China."

The company also had to provide the government with "much more than" the previously reported figure of 200 free tickets to each performance. At performances attended by The Independent, it was difficult to find a Chinese person who had bought a ticket.

The government did not contribute sponsorship. "I was astonished that the Chinese charged us so enormous a fee for rent. Because in Egypt and all other countries where you go, they even give you support money for promoting. We did not get one single dollar from the Chinese tourist authority for promoting this project. In Egypt, you would get millions of dollars," said Mr Ecker, who headed marketing and promotion for the 1987 performance of Aida in Egypt.

The final accounting picture will not emerge for two months, when Opera on Original Site and its Chinese co-organiser, the China Performing Arts Agency, complete accounts, which will be audited by Coopers & Lybrand. But the broad financial picture looks like this:

The Italian Culture Ministry put up $1.5m for costumes and flying the orchestra and chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino to Peking.

The China Performing Arts Agency covered 10 per cent of the budget in return for 45 per cent of the gross ticket sales.

That left OOS seemingly responsible for $11m of the budget, which it needed to cover by selling worldwide media rights, sponsorship and donations, and its 55 per cent of ticket sales.

Apart from television rights in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which belong to the company and the China Performing Arts Agency, all other television, compact disc, digital video disc and video rights were pre-sold to CLT UFA International, which is owned by Bertelsmann, the German media conglomerate. One source said the fee was "not far away from" $2.5m.