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Bamboo Theatre opening the world at Richmond festival

By Don Fennell

Published 11:19 PDT, Tue August 27, 2019

Rosa Cheng remembers when she considered opera “old-fashioned.”

Rosa Cheng remembers when she considered opera “old-fashioned.”

Raised in Hong Kong, which was then a British colony, she was educated in an English college and like most teens only liked western music by artists such as The Beatles. 

But after immigrating to Canada in the mid-1970s, and busy settling down and raising a family, something seemed to draw her to the classic musical theatre. Once a year, the family had the opportunity to attend a Cantonese opera performance in Chinatown. And in 1993, the first Cantonese opera music society was established in Richmond.

“We were living in Surrey at the time, and that was much closer than travelling to Chinatown,” she says. “My husband and I decided to start taking lessons in opera singing and joined the society. Very soon we became their ‘extra’ actors. Then we started learning the performance techniques from professional Cantonese opera artists.”

Today, Cheng leads the Vancouver Cantonese Opera, and is the champion of the Bamboo Theatre (showcasing a lineup of Southeast Asian artists and fun activities) at the Richmond World Festival Aug. 30 and 31 at Minoru Park. She is also assisting in curating the festival stage, and has been instrumental in co-ordinating a mass tai chi demonstration (over 100 people) to be performed Aug. 31. The Lion Dance, Dragon Dance and Phoenix Dance will also be performed.

Cheng is always looking for artists who can present to the public their unique traditional art form or culture.

“The main objective of the festival is to emphasize the importance of embracing multiculturalism by opening up of minds and our hearts to the beautiful cultures that our world is comprise of,” she says. “In Canada, we have adopted a vision where we embrace difference by seeking to preserve language and culture which in turn fosters understanding.”

Cheng has considerable experience with festivals. In 2012, with the support of the City of Vancouver, she helped the Vancouver Cantonese Opera launch the first Multicultural Heritage Festival at the CBC Radio Outdoor Stage. In 2013, the City of Richmond accepted an invitation to partner with the Vancouver Cantonese Opera and the Bamboo Theatre became a reality.

Cantonese opera is a unique art form that requires years of training that Cheng is passionate to preserve and promote. in 1995 she started volunteering to teach Cantonese opera singing at Coquitlam Seniors Centre, and also formed the Friends of Vancouver Cantonese Opera and offered free performance techniques classes in Surrey every Sunday. 

Cantonese opera is one of the major categories in Chinese opera, originating in southern China's Guangdong province. It is popular in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Macau and among Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. Like all versions of Chinese opera, it is a traditional Chinese art form, involving music, singing, martial arts, acrobatics and acting.  

The four skills and five methods are a simple codification of training areas that theatre performers must master and a metaphor for the most well-rounded and thoroughly-trained performers, says Cheng.

“The four skills apply to the whole spectrum of vocal and dramatic training: singing, acting/movements, speech delivery, and martial/gymnastic skills; while the five methods are categories of techniques associated with specific body parts: hands, eyes, body, hair, and feet/walking techniques,” she explains. “The acting, acrobat, music and singing, live on stage, are well known as essential characteristics of live performances in theatres.

“The opera today is mainly different in the costumes and setting. Some opera today may involve a lot of the electronic and technical components that were not there in yesteryear.”

Reflecting on her earliest and fondest memories of opera, Cheng says the bloopers they made on stage were embarrassing at the moment, “but when we look back it was fun.”

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