Back on scene:
The 39 year-old actress proves she is still beautiful and talented enough to
play the main role in a cai luong performance, a milestone in her return
to the art after a 10-year break. — File Photos
Hien performs concubine Diem Bich who was sent to Hoa Yen Pagoda to tempt monk
Huyen Quang. The actress has a rare chance to show off her talent for singing
by Thuy Binh
HCM City audiences enjoyed a cai luong (reformed opera)
performance titled Cung Phi Diem Bich (Concubine Diem Bich) by the
Central Cai Luong Theatre, starring well-known Ha Noi artist Thanh Thanh Hien.
The performance tells the story of an officer in the court of a
13th century king, Tran Thanh Tong, who gave up his position, office and title
to lead a religious life. He became a monk, named Huyen Quang.
Sceptical of his former officer’s religious devotion, the king
sends Diem Bich, an imperial concubine and talented artist, disguised as a
country girl, to the Hoa Yen pagoda on Yen Tu mountain, to tempt the monk.
Playing the concubine Diem Bich is a milestone for the actress
Thanh Thanh Hien, returning to cai luong after a ten-year break.
The performance made its debut in a national competition for
emerging theatre directors last December. It’s been a long time since Ha Noi’s
cai luong theatres were packed with people. Now both artists and
audiences are calling for an encore.
Acting as the concubine Diem Bich, Hien has a rare chance to
show off her talent for singing and acting. In one scene, concubine Diem Bich
beats a drum to force monk Huyen Quang to leave Buddha’s door and return to
normal life with her.
In another scene, concubine Diem Bich plays a song which
highlights her beauty and devotion in front of the monk. When each note
resounds, a silk scarf is tossed from the wings of the stage. As a man, Huyen
Quang is attracted to the passionate music played by a beautiful woman, but the
monk has to resist the temptation of normal life.
A musical upbringing
Thanh Thanh Hien was born into a cai luong family. Her
mother was a cai luong singer, who performed through her eighth month of
pregnancy, and her father worked in the same acting troupe in the northern city
of Thai Nguyen.
In her first months of life, Hien accompanied her parents on
By the age of 4, she had learned the performances by heart. Two
years later, she was allowed to sing a few songs on-stage to help the other
actors warm-up for their performance. Even after 30 years, she still remembers
the lyrics, "Con chim non giua troi dong gia lanh. Hoang hon roi chim
moi canh biet ve dau.... Ngoi sao buon le loi soi anh mat u sau. Trong trai bon
be gio oi thoi hoai chi nua," (The birdie is in chilly winter. Where
does it fly to when the sunset begins.... Sad eyes shining by a lonely star.)
"The first lullaby I heard was cai luong and my
first words were from literature," Hien said. "It’s very natural and
very close. If you were born in a cheo (popular opera) family you will
naturally love cheo," she said.
Hien inherited a lovely singing voice from her mother, but her
highly-praised wide vocal range, praised by many cai luong experts, is
all her own.
"My voice can hit high notes easily, but not low notes. I
have to try a lot and practise everyday to gain the recognition of the southern
people because cai luong originated from the south of the country,"
While audiences in the north tend to enjoy the spectacle and
entertainment of cai luong performances, for the south it is the vocal
artistry of the actors that is most important. "They don’t want the
artist to show off their professional skills, but the artist’s cai luong
voice," Hien explained.
A form of modern Vietnamese folk theatre, cai luong
evolved from don ca tai tu (music of talents), which is a genre of
improvisational chamber music that was created in southern Viet Nam during the
second decade of the 20th century.
Cai luong blends southern Vietnamese folk songs, ritual
music and later incorporates elements of hat tuong, a classical form of
theatre based on Chinese opera, Hue court music and modern spoken drama.
To be a Cai luong singer
Thanh Thanh Hien’s debut was in the cai luong play Doi
Dong Sua Me in 1986, where she played the role of Huong, a young girl who
was intentionally switched with another child during wartime.
The play made her one of the most beloved and famous young cai
luong singers in the north.
However, to gain the audiences’ recognition, Hien exhausted
herself studying at the Ha Noi Theatre and Cinema College. She can still recall
gruelling rehearsals where her throat was dry from singing and her body ached
from learning to dance with the stick and sword.
Once a teacher told her that she was too small and weak to
become a cai luong artist. "This stimulated me to try my best," she
It was not only her own effort which propelled Hien to fame, but
also an unusual mixture of beauty, voice and a tireless love of cai luong.
One of the most important aspects is a voice which is suitable
to cai luong. Many people have good voices, but are unable to sing cai
luong, according to Hien. "I think aptitude can not be gained by [all]
artists, even though they try their best," she said.
For Hien, cai luong is not just a profession, but an
integral part of her existence. "Cai luong is my life and my breath.
I sing everywhere in my home and on the road. I think about pitch in bed,"
The difficulties of studying cai luong never discouraged
An actor needs a good stage-voice, beauty and performance skill.
Besides these essentials, the traditional artist also needs dancing skills
because in traditional performances like tuong (classical opera), cheo
(popular opera), and cai luong, artists have to dance on-stage.
"At the beginning, I was a northern artist singing cai
luong and it didn’t convince the southern audiences. I had to teach myself
with help from my southern friends. They showed me what is not southern cai
luong. Gradually my voice was perfected and accepted by the southern
audiences," she said.
About ten years ago, Hien married a dan bau (monochord)
artist and decided to shift to her husband’s workplace, Thang Long Dance, Song
and Music Theatre. In the new theatre, Hien sings more modern music.
This new direction in her career didn’t make her sad because
Hien didn’t lose cai luong. "I don’t think that my love for cai
luong is shown by singing and performing cai luong every night,"
During this period, Hien was invited to sing in a number of
small private cai luong performances, but it was not until her
performance in Cung Phi Diem Bich that Hien returned for a major
performance, rightfully taking her place as one of the most talented northern cai
When director Quynh Mai was searching for an actress to fulfil
the role of Concubine Diem Bich, he didn’t have to look far.
"The people who love and understand cai luong can
perform wonderfully, like Thanh Thanh Hien," Le Duy Hanh, chairman of HCM
Stage Artists’ Association, said after he saw the performance Concubine
Diem Bich at the competition last year.
The director’s vision was strengthened by Hien’s talent.
Despite high achievements in her field, Hien is eager to learn
other kinds of traditional art such as cheo, ca tru, chau van, ho Hue and
Hien also wants to help mentor other young cai luong artists.
Her door is always open to young performers who want Hien to help them
understand more about their profession.
This is her contribution to preserving and developing cai
luong. — VNS