Sunday, August 9 2020

VietNamNews

Traditional Opera brings audience back in time

Update: September, 13/2008 - 00:00

Traditional Opera brings audience back in time

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
Dramatic times: 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 and acting.

(14-09-2008)

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 tour.

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," Hien said.

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 said.

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," she said.

The difficulties of studying cai luong never discouraged her.

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.

Another direction

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," Hien shared.

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 luong artists.

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 xam.

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

Send Us Your Comments:

See also: