Vancouver opera company uses big screen TVs to get seniors singing and dancing in quarantine

Before COVID-19, a small opera group would travel to seniors’ homes and community centres around Vancouver to perform for Chinese Canadian elders.

They’d all gather in one room and enjoy an opera in Cantonese.

But, when the pandemic hit and care homes had to go into strict lockdown, the woman who organizes those shows was stuck in Peru. 

April Liu, who produces the Vancouver Cantonese Opera, had only planned to be in Lima for a few weeks. But as for many, her year has been challenging.

She wasn’t able to leave after Peru’s borders shut in March, and she worried about the people who would miss her shows.

“The Chinese Canadian elders have been especially hard hit by the pandemic,” she said. “They are grappling with health issues, increased isolation and the rising anti-Asian sentiments brought on by COVID-19.”

So she decided to do it anyway — and it wasn’t an easy process. She had to get big screens set up for seniors in a bunch of homes and try to figure out a way for costumed performers to capture the emotion and energy of a live performance on Zoom.

All of it had to be done remotely, and it all had to be done safely.

The Vancouver Cantonese Opera performs its Opera-In-Care program at Mount St. Joseph Hospital in Vancouver in 2019. In 2020, the performances had to be done remotely. (Vancouver Cantonese Opera)

“We worked closely with the care homes to figure out how they could set up a big screen in their community rooms or dining halls, with the elders safely spaced apart,” said Liu, adding that meant they couldn’t have as many people watching as they had in the past. 

They also had to train performer Rosa Cheng to shoot pre-recorded behind-the-scenes segments, and it had to all be done remotely. That meant a lot of late-night meetings with Liu’s team in Vancouver.

Cheng performed a song from Flower Princess — an opera about a tragic romance as the Ming Dynasty fell — one of the most popular passages in Cantonese opera.

“I really wanted the event to be as interactive as possible while maintaining a high production value,” Liu said.

They had to contend with translation, visuals, music, lighting and costuming.

It also had to be done in two languages: English and Cantonese.

“Cantonese is a very intimate and musical language,” said Liu. “As an immigrant’s daughter, it brings back my childhood and a comforting sense of home and family, even though I cannot speak it very well myself.”

In the end, the 80-minute production, led by Cheng, included a costuming demonstration, live performance and singalong party. 

They had about 150 people tune in from all over the world — and that, Liu says, is exactly why she does what she does: to bring together diverse audiences for some good storytelling.

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