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Performer raises voice to keep cheo alive

Update: January, 19/2014 - 18:07
Traditional songs: Artist Thanh Ngoan (third from left) and other artists during a performance of hat xam (blind busker's singing). — VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Tung

Thanh Ngoan has been passionate about cheo operas since she was a child. Today, she impresses audiences with her dramatic singing voice and devotion to the ancient art. Phong Xuan and Ha Nguyen report.

Cheo actress Thanh Ngoan (her real name is Nguyen Thi Bich Ngoan) has won the hearts of thousands of fans in the country for her cheo (traditional opera) singing.

One fan, Ho Thi Nguyet, in Quynh Doi Village in the central province of Nghe An's Quynh Luu District, says she and almost all the villagers there are fans of Ngoan.

"When we hear about her troupe's arrival in the district, we tell each other to eat dinner early so that we can go and enjoy Ngoan's singing.

"We love Ngoan not only for her strong singing that attracts us, but also for her beautiful face and nice behaviour. I particularly like her eyes which always look at us in a friendly way," Nguyet says.

Born in the Hong (Red) River Delta province of Thai Binh's Thai Thuy District, Ngoan has been interested in cheo since the age of 9.

She joined many singing performances in her district as well as other areas in the province.

As a result, she had won many prizes in the province by the age of 13.

With her innate talent and encouragement by her parents, Ngoan travelled to Ha Noi to learn cheo art.

"I was the youngest student in my class so my classmates helped me a lot and encouraged me when I got homesick. The late 1970s and 1980s were the most difficult times in the country. We sometimes had to eat mouldy rice or stay hungry. But I tried to overcome all these because I love singing very much," said Ngoan.

Thanks to her talent and hard work, Ngoan was recruited to Ha Noi-based Viet Nam Cheo Theatre in 1979.

From 1982 to 2001, Ngoan successfully enacted many characters such as Hoan Thu in Kieu Tales or Hong Chau in Ho Xuan Huong drama.

"I was very busy performing cheo, a traditional opera of Viet Nam, on local and international stages. In 1993 I participated in a national cheo contest even I was pregnant," Ngoan recalled.

At the contest, though she was seven months pregnant, no artist could replace her. She played successfully the character of Dop in Me Dop play without having to disguise her belly, said actress Diem Loc, adding that many people from the audience went onto the stage to congratulate Ngoan.

Famous artists such as Nam Ngu, Diu Huong, Minh Ly and Diem Loc have helped Ngoan to develop her talents and encouraged her to perform both classical and contemporary works.

In addition, Ngoan also teaches her art, saying she is always thinking about how to keep cheo, the national traditional art, alive forever.

Role model: Artist Thanh Ngoan is loved for not only her singing but also for her pleasant personality. — VNA/VNS Photo

Truong Ngoc Huyen, a student of Ngoan, said her teacher often tries to encourage her students to learn the art.

"She helps us practice each difficult tune or act. She never shows any tiredness to us, but instead tries to encourage us," Huyen says.

Thanks to Ngoan, Huyen and many of her classmates have successfully performed in many plays.

Ngoan and her artists at the theatre have performed many Vietnamese traditional plays on small stages in the Old Quarter for foreign visitors and guests.

Apart from singing cheo, Ngoan is also famous for performing traditional singing such as hat xam (blind busker's singing) and ca tru (ceremonial singing).

Ady Brian from Australia said he likes Vietnamese ca tru very much. "I often come to the Old Quarter to enjoy artists', including Ngoan's, singing. The UNESCO recognition of it as being an intangible heritage of mankind has attracted us."

Brian said he is particularly interested in the Tam Cam play. "It's enjoyable and relaxing after a hard day's work."

Ngoan said she mostly fears that the audience would ignore cheo or misunderstand it. "I has read a lot to have a profound understanding about cheo stage and folk art," said Ngoan.

She has set up the Sac Viet Club in the Old Quarter's 75 Hang Bo Street to perform classical cheo and ca tru every Saturday and Sunday.

She has also released many CDs on such arts, including the latest one that is titled Ha Noi 36 Pho Phuong.

Nguyen Thu Hang, 50, who lives in the Old Quarter, said she and her friends never miss any of Ngoan's performances because they are so interesting and attractive. "It helps relax us a lot. We feel quite comfortable after enjoying Ngoan and her colleagues' performances."

Ngoan has now been promoted as director of the Viet Nam Cheo Theatre. Despite being very busy, she organises traditional performances such as cheo and tuong (classical art) at the Ha Noi Friendship Palace for students.

This year, the theatre plans to perform two new plays: Duong Truong Duyen Phan which aims to praise the love and contribution of cheo artists who have tried to keep the art alive, and Bac Le Den Thieng which is about the preservation and development of national culture, said Ngoan.

In addition, the theatre will perform Nang Thi The at Kim Ma stage at 1 Giang Van Minh, Ha Noi for local and foreign audiences during Tet, or traditional Lunar New Year festival.

Ngoan explained that cheo is an original synthesis of folk songs, dance and narration. The words of the play are imbued with the lyricism of folk songs, proverbs and popular sayings. A cheo play is generally performed in large theatres, but it can also be performed on one or two sedge bed mats spread in the middle of a communal house with a cast of only three: a hero, a heroine and a clown. The clown in a cheo play seems to have a supporting role, but he or she is also important to the performance. The clowns present a comic portrayal of social life. With satirical words and gestures, they reduce the audience to tears of laughter. — VNS

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