Obviously, the big screen is not enough for Zhang Yimou's ambitions; following his production of Puccini's "Turandot," he is hoping to bring his version of "Liu Sanjie" (Sister Liu), an eminent Chinese opera, to the stage.
Many still have a fresh memory of the extravagant "Turandot" Zhang directed amid the golden roofs of Beijing's Forbidden City, China's former imperial palace, in 1998. The US$15 million production, conducted by Zubin Mehta, was said to be the most expensive ever. Nearly 4,200 spectators enjoyed Zhang's interpretation of the work, even at ticket prices ranging from $150 to $1,200.
Though Puccini's opera might have been a little difficult to handle due to cultural differences, many admired Zhang's innovative stage setting and costumes. However, "Liu Sanjie" will surely be a more comfortable Chinese story to fully exert his potential in music and art.
But this time, the venue has moved from the Forbidden City to the Lijiang River in Guilin, one of south China's famous scenic spots. Zhang's ambition is to present China's premier opera with a natural stage setting.
His interest in the story goes back to the deep impression of a film of the same name. Screened in the 1960s, the film—Liu Sanjie, considered to be one of the country's best musicals, described how Liu Sanjie, the heroine with a nightingale voice, found her sweetheart through song.
Yet it's not so easy for Zhang to "sing" in Guilin.
The project involves a large sum of money, including a high-standard acoustic system, a huge transparent roof and an open theater with 3,000-seat capacity. Such a big project might be a headache for others to attract investment, but not for Zhang. His name has already won him a 200 million yuan (US$24 million) budget from Chuang Wei International Ltd, a Hong Kong company.
"We have great confidence in the project and Zhang Yimou," said Wang Li, the board chairman of the company. "Every year thousands of travelers go to Guilin, so we expect to recoup the money in five years."
But future benefits are not Zhang Yimou's concern. He traveled to Guilin to decide the most appropriate place to build up the stage. The outcome, like his previous style, was surprising.
He chose to build the stage on a cesspool in a pesticide plant.
"The place is a notoriously unsanitary one in Guilin," Zhang said. "Considering Guilin's environmental protection problems, we promised to take some money from our budget to deal with the pollution there."
In this latest endeavor Zhang seemingly cares more about the stage and the environment than his better-known fever for finding the right lead actress.
The role of Liu Sanjie will be decided by He Xuntian, China's famous composer, whose "Sister Drum" hit the world record charts. He, currently traveling in Guilin, intends to combine folklore together with a modern touch.
"The actress won't be a permanent fixture, because the opera is planned to run for quite a long time, say 10 or 50 years," he said. "So there will be a frequent rotating of actresses. But of course, the most important thing is that she should have a unique voice."
The debut of the anticipated "Liu Sanjie" is scheduled for 2002.
"I think rainy days would be perfect for the performance," Zhang claimed. "Guilin's beautiful natural scenery, the enchanting characters on the stage, and the agreeable melodies, will make an unforgettable night for the audience."