The history of music in China spans some 4,000 years and traditional Chinese orchestra is a fusion of many cultural traditions, with different components combined to bring the audience the finest musical experience. But it is an artistic challenge to achieve the best results, using a range of instruments, all with their own distinctive sound, says Naomi Chung, programme, education and touring manager for the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra.
"After graduating from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) with majors in theatre and lighting design, I accepted a scholarship to the UK for one year's studies," recalls Ms Chung. "During that year, I travelled alone to a number of theatres, living with different host families at each location. This was where I first started learning to become independent."
After Ms Chung returned to Hong Kong, she joined Hong Kong Ballet for a few months as a resident lighting designer before taking up a teaching role at the HKAPA for a semester. "Meanwhile, I did some professional jobs in lighting design at Hong Kong Ballet, Hong Kong Dance Company, City Contemporary Dance Company, Hong Kong Repertory Theatre and other amateur organisations, where I learnt many management and communication skills," she adds.
According to Ms Chung, the first step in stage-design communication is to successfully present an idea to directors and choreographers, in order to convince them to accept your proposed design. This is followed by coordinating the tasks carried out by technical staff in areas such as computerised light-queue plotting and installing light panels. Good time management is crucial. "I regarded this as part of the training to develop my management techniques," Ms Chung notes.
In 1993, Ms Chung was granted another scholarship for a combined bachelor's and master's degree at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, which further opened up her horizons.
"I learnt a lot about venue management and administration, and even took up African drums for fun in the last semester," Ms Chung recalls.
After settling down back in Hong Kong in 1996, Ms Chung started working as a temporary assistant manager with the government's Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), where she looked after the Asian Arts Festival for two months before moving to the Hong Kong International Film Festival as manager for three-and-a-half years.
"I always tell people it's the LCSD that nurtured my knowledge in performing arts management, although I left for a while to oversee the construction of the Jockey Club Auditorium at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where, apart from mere stage design, I learnt about tackling the technical defects of a building and eliminating restrictions," adds Ms Chung.
In 2001, she joined the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, which is widely regarded as the best Chinese orchestra in the world.
Chinese orchestra music differs greatly from its Western counterpart. While there are some similarities with Western orchestra in terms of the seating positions of the musicians, there are variances too, which can be challenging, says Ms Chung. "I found it different, even though I had been a camp director for the Asian Youth Orchestra's annual summer camp for five years in the early 1990s."
Ms Chung's previous orchestra management experience helped her with rostering and daily operations. She feels that her extensive project experience with various art forms now helps her to facilitate smooth coordination for programme, touring and education in her current role.
The Chinese Orchestra consists of 85 to 88 musicians. There has always been a high turnover rate for stage managers at the orchestra, she points out. "A Chinese Orchestra stage manager has to take care of more orchestra members than at any other artistic institutions, and we have a different instrument setting from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra."
It is also important that the instruments and the requirements of the conductor are taken into account during rehearsals and performances, since Chinese orchestra music can range from traditional to contemporary. If venues are changed it can also have an effect on the positioning of the instruments. "To sum it up, the stage manager has to make sure that the performance runs smoothly," Ms Chung stresses.
Most Chinese Orchestra stage managers are graduates from the HKAPA, says Ms Chung. While a prospective stage manager should ideally possess an arts diploma or degree and two years' experience in the field, it is also important that he or she is flexible and smart, in order to deal with the many issues that may come up. "Particularly when we go on tour, the stage manager must take great care. Chinese musical instruments are irreplaceable, so we need to check and pack them very carefully," she notes.
Newcomers to the field should be adaptable, flexible and keen to learn, emphasises Ms Chung. "Above all, perhaps a playful character is what matters most if you want to work in the arts," she concludes.