|History in modern day: A scene from the play Magic Task (Menh lenh than ky), written by Tran Dinh Ngon.
by Ha Nguyen
For locals in Viet Nam's northern region, Tran Dinh Ngon, 73, is "King of cheo" (traditional opera).
Known for his compositions for many cheo plays, Ngon has conquered cheo lovers within and outside the country over four decades.
He is the owner of more than 110 long scripts on different topics from folk literature such as plays on history, culture, and modern-day people as well as leaders.
According to statistics from the Institute of Theatre, 33 per cent of gold medals and 25 per cent of silver medals won by artists at national stage performances between 1955 and 2005 performed on Ngon's scripts.
In 2013, national stage performances of Ngon's plays Chuong Ngan Rung Truc (Bell Modulation in Bamboo Forest) and Chu Van An, Nguoi Thay Cua Muon Doi (Chu Van An, The Teacher of All Times) won gold medals, while his plays Phung Khac Khoan and the Qua cau vang (Golden Betel Nut) have won gold medals at the National Television Festival.
He is one of the four leading drama composers - Chu Thom, Xuan Duc, and Ha Dinh Can are the other three - and has been assigned by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to compose works for national festivals.
Associate professional and cheo researcher Nguyen Tat Thang agrees that Ngon has been Viet Nam's leading composer and most of his plays have been performed on stage.
Recently, the Literature Publishing House released a book listing Ngon's scripts. They include 15 on folk culture, 26 on cultural activists and historians, 43 on revolutionaries and leaders, and 5 on foreign chronicles and the rewrites of ancient cheo.
Thang says that Ngon's capacity to write cheo scripts is so excellent and strong that no one has so far managed to follow him.
"I'm very worried that apart from Ngon, very few authors are composing cheo scripts," Thang notes, adding that Viet Nam has 18 professional cheo troupes, but they lack scripts due to a lack of authors.
|Music royalty: Tran Dinh Ngon, 73, has been called the king of cheo (traditional opera).
When national stage festival nears, these troupes often rush to Ngon, requesting him to write for them. That's why his works make up half of the total works at the festival.
For example, at a recent cheo festival in the northern province of Thai Binh, four out of six works that won gold and silver medals were Ngon's.
At the festival, a young author received much applause from lovers. He was Traân Dinh Van, Ngon's son and student.
Unfortunately, Van died last month at the age of 40 due to a sudden cold.
Despite being the No1 cheo composer in the country, Ngon says his monthly income is just enough to cover his daily expenses.
He recalls that the royalties he received from his first script, modulated from Tat Den (Turn off Lamp) of famous author Ngo Tat To, was so modest. It was merely enough for him to buy a made-in-China bicycle.
Today, only a few audiences from big cities such as Ha Noi and HCM City come to enjoy traditional cheo plays.
Cheo troupes often have to go to rural areas where people are still interested in this art very much, Ngon says.
"To sustain this art form, the State should assist cheo troupes. This is the only way we can preserve this rare traditional opera," he affirms.
Although retired, Ngon is strong and remains devoted to researching and composing cheo.
Last year, he actively assisted youngsters in putting together a project called "Cheo 48 Hours. I Row back to our Native Land" that aimed to bring the art to young Vietnamese in an effort to remind them to preserve cheo art.
Nguyen Ngoc Anh, 20, from Ha Noi's Hai Ba Trung District's art club, who was also part of the project, says that before joining a cheo class, she had access to the traditional opera, but its language, mainly Han-Vietnamese, is very difficult to understand, particularly the way it is sung.
"After attending classes and listening to Dr Ngon teaching how to sing and dance, I learnt the values of our traditional culture, particularly cheo. Now, I'm fascinated. "When I finish the class, I will perform cheo at home for my parents and my friends," Anh adds.
Ngon was born in Hai Duong Province's An Binh Village of Nam Sach District, the cradle of ancient cheo art, a specific trait of the wet rice civilisation.
His father, Tran Dinh Viet, who had learned by heart many cheo melodies, had passed them on to Ngon.
As a result, at the age of 10, Ngon composed a play and put together a performance with his classmates at his school's year-end festival.
In 1962, after graduating from high school, Ngon joined the Ta Ngan Cheo troupe, and later the Hai Phong Cheo troupe.
Years later, he decided to join in-service training at the National University's Literature Department, where leading theorists and professors Hoang Xuan Nhi, Le Dinh Ky and Ha Minh Duc polished his literature knowledge. He had a doctorate in literature in 1996.
Ngon devoted his time and effort to learning the art so his talent expanded, in addition to reading cheo researches of famous professors Tran Bang, Ha Van Cau, and Hoang Kieu, which helped him compose many cheo plays.
Ngon, a rare author who learned by heart and standard, sings more than 100 of the 150 melodies of the country's traditional cheo art.
When Viet Nam News called him for an interview, we learned that the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism was considering a project in which it can pay notable writers like him VND100 to VND140 million per play.
But no concrete decision had been made as of printing time. — VNS