For much of the past year, Taiwan has been a sort of haven for musicians and artists – a rare and almost free place in Covid, where people could still fill concert halls to listen to live music and have coffee together during breaks.
The island has hosted modern dance festivals, full productions of “La Traviata” and “O Fantasma da Ópera” and even a Yo-Yo Ma recital in Bach’s cello suites attended by over 4,000 people. .
But a recent spike in Covid cases – the worst outbreak in Taiwan since the start of the pandemic – has led to the suspension of cultural life on the island, forcing performing arts centers, concert halls and museums to close their doors just as these places reopen. in the rest of the world.
Performers from Taiwan and other countries have been caught off guard, suffering financial losses and facing an avalanche of canceled shows.
“It was all for space,” commented American clarinetist Charles Neidich, who recently traveled 12,500 km from New York to Taipei just to see what would be his first live performance in more than 400 canceled days.
He had been invited to play a clarinet concert by American composer John Corigliano with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra. He was quarantined for two weeks in a hotel, one of the strict measures that have helped the island keep the virus under control. But last week Taipei entered a state of semi-lockdown, so he packed his bags and headed home.
“This is my adventure that didn’t happen,” said Neidich.
The vaccination program launched by the Taiwanese government has been slow to start and the Covid epidemic is forcing Taipei to close as other cities around the world finally begin to reopen. In London, the West End theaters reopened last week. Officials in New York have announced that Radio City Music Hall will once again receive full audiences. People will not need to wear masks in the theater as long as they have been vaccinated.
What is happening in Taiwan once again highlights the constant uncertainty of living in the pandemic, the danger posed by the virus, and its power to overturn even the most carefully planned plans. The presentations of Verdi’s “Falstaff” have been suspended. The French musical “Notre Dame de Paris” has been postponed.
Although the number of cases in Taiwan is low compared to many parts of the world – 283 cases of Covid were reported on Tuesday (25), fewer than in New York – authorities are tightening restrictions. The hope is that with the lockdown, the virus can be brought under control in weeks or months, as the island seeks to streamline its vaccination schedule, which is delayed.
Artists are optimistic about the chances that concerts, dances, theatrical performances and museum exhibits will return soon.
“It’s a place used to earthquakes and typhoons,” said Lin Hwai-min, founder of Cloud Gate Dance Theater, a contemporary dance company that has postponed live performances until late summer. in the northern hemisphere. “The crisis comes, we treat it and then come back to restore everything.”
Over the past 12 months, the dance company has suffered losses due to the cancellation of its scheduled tours in the United States and Europe. But with near-zero infections in Taiwan and an entertainment-hungry population, the company was able to make up for those losses thanks to strong domestic demand, having opened new jobs to a sold-out audience.
“Before, being able to play live seemed surreal,” Lin commented. “Today, for the first time, we are confronted with the reality of the virus on our skin, like our peers in Western countries.”
The closure of Taiwan’s borders at the start of the pandemic and the strict sanitary measures adopted by the island, including mandatory masks and an extensive contact tracing program, have made the island of 23.5 million people a success in confronting the virus. But the emergence of more contagious variants in recent months, the relaxation of quarantine rules and the shortage of vaccines have opened a gap for the entry of the virus.
Previously, the lack of wide distribution in Taiwan meant that concert halls could continue to operate at near capacity. Theaters and concert halls have imposed strict health measures which have been readjusted according to the number of confirmed cases of Covid.
In many spaces, members of the public were required to provide their name and phone number in order to be followed in the event of a Covid outbreak. The use of a mask was mandatory, as well as checking the temperature of people. Some concert halls have banned the sale of food and drink. In some places, the seats were spaced apart from each other, forming flower-like patterns, in an arrangement that became known in Taiwan as “plum blossom seats”.
Despite all the precautions taken, there have been occasional outbreaks. More than 100 people were forced into quarantine in March last year after contacting Australian composer Brett Dean, who was diagnosed with coronavirus after performing in Taiwan. The incident made headlines in Taiwan. Some people have been outraged that Dean (whose “Hamlet” is due to debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York next season) was allowed to perform, despite a cough.
Lydia Kuo, executive director of the National Symphony Orchestra, who collaborated with Dean, said fear taught the orchestra the importance of following strict sanitary measures, even when there is almost no infection. by Covid.
“We were facing an unknown enemy,” she explained. “We were fortunate to face this reality very early on.”