by Ngoc Minh and Ha Nguyen
There is no hesitation whatsoever when fifth-grade student Nguyen Thi Nguyet is asked which is her favourite class in school. "Cheo," she says.
The student of the Cam Doai Primary School in the northern province of Hai Duong says she enjoys the traditional music lessons because it "helps us relax a lot". Since the school made this art form part of the curricula in 2011, the students have enjoyed learning the music and their families have enjoyed impromptu cheo performances at home.
Nguyet's mother Truong Thi Thu said she was particularly happy with the proramme because everyone in her family, especially her elderly parents, love this traditional drama.
"They are not very strong now, but they still go to the theatre once a month," Thu said, adding that discovering her daughter's aptitude for cheo as a result of the programme was a welcome bonus.
"My parents encourage my daughter to learn folk songs a lot. They say proudly that Nguyet will help the art develop and thrive," Thu said.
She said she would do everything she can to help Nguyet develop her skills, although she did not want a focus on this art to deflect her daughter from other subjects at shool.
However, Nguyet allays her mother's concerns with wisdom beyond her years. "Learning how to sing and joining the cheo troupe only makes us enjoy other subjects more. I am really happy that I am not afraid to sing to many people. I also like to make new friends and talk with people."
Tran Thi Thuy, who is in charge of the school's art troupe, says she has taught the traditional music in other schools, but students of Cam Doai seem to have a gift for the art.
"I am very happy to teach, but the students have to work hard to learn many things that are specific to cheo, like how to combine singing and dancing to match the music and the drama, because the lyrics have many different tones and meanings. It is also important that the personality of cheo characters is not changed during the play."
She said teaching these characteristics to students is not easy because dialogues of classical plays such as Quan Am Thi Kinh, Luu Binh Duong Le, Ngheu So Oc Hen and Suy Van Gia Dai many archaic words and phrases.
"I have to co-operate with my colleagues to adjust the curriculum and edit the dialogues to help students easily understand and play their part. Apart from the classical tales, we also teach modern plays with themes like the relationship between teachers and students, between friends and love for the homeland," Thuy said.
Cheo is an original synthesis of folk songs, dances and narration. The words of the play are imbued with the lyricism of folk songs, proverbs and popular sayings. A play can be performed on an elaborate stage in a large theatre, as well as on one or two mats spread out in the middle of a communal house with a cast of just three: a hero, a heroine and a clown.
Professor Tran Van Khe and other musicologists have noted that the clown in a cheo play seems to have a supporting role, but is actually very important in a larger context, offering a satire on society that is all the more effective for reducing the audience to tears of laughter.
Khe has also said that if Peking opera represents China's traditional theatre, cheo, although it developed most strongly in the Red River Delta region, represents Viet Nam's traditional stage.
Meanwhile, as one of Viet Nam's first schools to teach cheo, the Cam Doai Primary School is not only helping preserve and develop the traditional art but also popularise it in the province, said Bui Quang Toan, director of the Hai Duong Cheo Theatre.
However, principal Pham Thi Hoa said that her school faced various obstacles in teaching the traditional art. Many parents do not want their children to join a cheo troupe because they are afraid, like Nguyet's mother, that they would neglect other subjects.
A shortage of cheo teachers as well as funds to pay them are other obstacles, Hoa said.
"We have invited only two cheo artists from the Hai Duong Cheo Theatre to teach our students because we do not have enough money to pay them," she said.
Like Hai Duong and many other provinces and cities, Ha Noi has also launched a project to bring the folk art to 1,700 schools.
The project tries to popularise cheo among school students by having them meet directly with artists and researchers and participating in plays, said Tran Quoc Anh, deputy director of the Ha Noi Cheo Theatre (HNCT).
"This is the most effective method to pique the interest of young people because most of the current audience are senior citizens," he said.
HNCT Director Nguyen Thuy Mui said her dream is that artists are able to reach out to all Ha Noi school students and have them know and understand the drama genre.
"I believe that in the future, we can attract larger audiences with more young people," she said.
Seventh-grade student Nguyen Trong Nhan of the Trung Vuong Secondary School in Ha Noi said that he has begun enjoying cheo, particularly in theatres, after he learnt about the art in school.
"Before, I would ignore a cheo play on TV although my grandfather loved it, but now, we enjoy it together."
Musician Do Hong Quan, chairman of the Viet Nam Musicians Association, said "Bringing cheo, tuong (classic opera) and other national art forms into schools will create a basic knowledge among students, and this is the most effective way to preserve and develop our traditional arts." — VNS