HA NOI — For a long time there was the opinion that cai luong (reformed theatre) could only be sung well by artists from the Cuu Long (Mekong) River Delta, the birth place of the musical form. Then came Thanh Thanh Hien from Ha Noi to put a stop to the stereotype.
Old school: Thanh Thanh Hien has performed in 20 plays and cut dozens of albums, performing southern-style cai luong in her 30-year career. — File Photo
In a 30-year career, she has performed in 20 serious plays and cut dozens of albums performing southern-style cai luong. The genre is split into the southern and central styles.
In the 1980s and 90s, she worked for the Cai Luong Theatre in Ha Noi and became its brightest star, attracting fans in both the south and north.
"I have achieved precious things by singing traditional music, especially cai luong. Through the traditional music, I improve my heart and soul and learn to be free on stage," she says. By "free", she refers to singing from the heart rather than by rote.
Born in a traditional art family in Thai Nguyen Province, Hien acquired her love for the art from her mother, Kim Thoa, who was part of a leading local troupe, the Quyet Tien Cai Luong Theatre.
She first stepped on the stage when she was just 14. A year later, she played a leading role in Doi Dong Sua Meï (Mother's Milk) when her beauty and sweet voice won over both fans and critics.
After five years of studying music and theatre at the Ha Noi Theatre and Arts School, Hien decided to become a professional cai luong singer.
She realised early that her beauty and talent were not enough if she wanted to become a traditional performer.
"I love singing cai luong. But I also love singing traditional music in the northern and central styles. Each style requires specific vocal skills." Hien is one of the few singers who can perform well in all three styles.
One of her favourite cai luong plays is Cung Phi Diem Bich (Imperial Concubine Diem Bich), a tragic love story written by Hoang Cong Khanh.
Directed by Hoang Quynh Mai, it won the first prize at the National Competition for Young Theatre Directors held by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in 2007.
Cung Phi Diem Bich took Hien to the pinnacle of her art, making her popular even among southern fans.
She sings in the southern style, taking listeners through a gamut of emotions.
"Listening to Hien, I feel the ethos of cai luong and the southern people even though she is not a native," Phan Thi Thu Hoa, one of Hien's fans and a resident of Ca Mau Province's Ngoc Hien District, says.
"Hien understands our people's way of life."
Hien has wowed audiences, especially the young, with many songs based on folk music like Dan Cam Day Vu Day Van (The Soul of the Seven-Stringed Musical Instrument) by Nguyen Cuong and Dem Nghe Hat Do Nho Bac (At night, Listening Traditional Music to Remember President Ho) by An Thuyen.
For her contributions to cai luong, the State conferred the Meritorious Artist award on Hien in 1999.
"Singers like Hien can evoke love for traditional music among young artists and fans," Tran Minh Ngoc, deputy editor-in-chief of the HCM City-based Theatre Magazine, said.
Ngoc invited her to perform in his latest play, Ba Chua Tho Nom (The Master of Vietnamese Poetry), on Ho Xuan Huong, a famous poetess who lived in the late 18th century.
"Hien sings cai luong for the love of theatre without thinking of glory," he says in her praise. — VNS