SHANGHAI - Two weeks ago Cats, the legendary musical with its record $2 billion box office sales and worldwide audience of 73 million people, had its Chinese language premiere in Shanghai. This will be followed by a tour of 162 performances in other major Chinese cities.
Following the success of Mamma Mia!, Cats is the second Chinese adaptation of a musical promoted by United Asia Live Entertainment (UAE). Mamma Mia!, which is currently on its second tour of China, set a record of 191 consecutive performances on its first tour last year and earned 850 million RMB ($134 million) at the box office. 2011 went down as “The First Year of China’s Musicals.”
Whereas Mamma Mia! is a warm family comedy, Cats is much more abstract since its plot is based on T.S Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” a poem, and it has almost no dialogue.
In addition to understanding the screenplay, the actors need to have excellent physical fitness and staunch willpower. “We have uninterrupted rehearsals sessions from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily with costume and makeup on. The dancing is even harder than on Mamma Mia!” says Mao Haifei who plays the role of Quaxo in Cats after dancing in last year’s version of Mamma Mia!.
Not only are the actors required to maintain the posture and the look of cats all through the musical, but they also have to dance non-stop for 150 minutes in various styles: classical, jazz, pop and rock.
Whether it’s Mamma Mia! or Cats, the Chinese versions follow the “Original production team plus Chinese actors” format. The copyright agreement alone has hundreds of pages of densely written text specifying each deal. UAE has signed respectively with the owners of the two musicals -- Little Star and Really Useful, both UK companies -- a contract of five years. The costs of the first-round performances are borne by the UAE but are underwritten by local entertainment companies on the second round.
Tian Yuan, the general manager of UAE, does not hide his ambitions for musicals in China’s domestic market. "We are the first ones in China to produce musicals professionally. Mamma Mia!’s Chinese version was our initiation. We are hoping to find a mode of localized musical production, finance and local talent. We’d like to found our own theater, performing groups, and have our own originality."
“A Chinese version makes it easier for the Chinese audience to be fully integrated into the story. The use of Chinese language and Chinese performers draws the audience closer to the show," Tian Yuan says. In Mamma Mia!, local Internet buzzwords are deliberately added to highlight the localization. In the Shanghai premiere of Cats, one of the roles, the "aristocratic cat," said “goodbye” in Shanghainese on stage, attracting the audience’s laughter.
The costs of an original version and a Chinese version differ greatly. The original version of Mamma Mia! introduced in 2007 with 16 performances over two weeks cost 15 million RMB ($2.36 million) in operating costs, whereas its Chinese version costs 30 million ($4.72 million).
“I have a five-year performance cycle to digest this cost. The first year we staged nearly 200 performances and we won’t do less than 100 performances per year from the second year. In total there could be 600 performances in five years," Tian Yuan says -- though he does not disclose any specific figures for royalties.
During the musical production process, the many castings as well as the rehearsals are all subject to the requirements of the UK companies. The attention to details is astounding.
"These foreign firms very much hope that we are able to quickly learn all the aspects of the entire production links and process, and do it 100 percent,” Tian Yuan explains. "These musicals are not "Made in China," but "Chinese versions' and the quality must be guaranteed so that whether it is in London, Germany, Russia, South Korea or Japan, the audience sees the same quality. Only good quality will sustain good vitality.”
Bringing a Chinese touch
Jo-Anne Robinson has worked on both the Broadway and the West End version of Cats for 30 years. Today she is directing and choreographing the Chinese version. She explains that right from the start of the creation there is a blueprint. The music, dance and acting are all planned out in accordance with this blueprint.
“Nevertheless, Chinese actors are not carbon copies. They need to bring richness to each cat in accordance with their own understanding of the musical,” she says.
The Chinese version has the most cats on stage since its creation, a total of 34. The Broadway version has only 24 to 26 cats.
The people working on the Chinese version were particularly concerned about the adaptation of the Cats theme song, Memory. Music director Fiz Shapur says that, "Taking into account the Chinese syllables, phonology, and in particular the tones, is very difficult. The slightest mistake will cause ambiguity.”
The biggest challenge lies in finding the right cast. “There aren’t many actors in China who can act, dance and sing. Besides, it’s rare to find among the few who meet the basic requirements someone who has any experience in musicals,” Fiz Shapur points out.
However, after seeing the passion of Chinese audiences for Mamma Mia!, the Chinese version of Broadway musicals looks destined for great success. When the familiar tune of ABBA’s Dancing Queen started, almost all the audience got up and applauded with excitement. They waved their arms, whistled, screamed and jumped up and down. The boundary of the stage is blurred and the theater becomes a venue for a giant party. One does not see this often in reserved China.
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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