Cải lương guru devoted to Vietnamese theatre

July 25, 2021 - 07:48

“I will work until my last breath to expand Vietnamese theatre among young people,” said Thanh Điền, theatre actor, director and producer in HCM City.


Actors perform in 100 Năm Sân Khấu Cải Lương (A Hundred Years of Cải Lương Theatre), a drama project offering TV shows on cải lương launched by Thanh Điền. The project has received support from the HCM City Television and HCM City Theatre Association. Photo courtesy of HCM Television

By Thu Anh

“I will work until my last breath to expand Vietnamese theatre among young people,” said Thanh Điền, theatre actor, director and producer in HCM City.

Điền has had a 45-year-long career in cải lương (reformed opera), a 100-year-old traditional theatre genre of the southern region. 

He was recently nominated for the title of People’s Artist by the Government in recognition of his great contribution to the art.  

"For a true artist, glory comes after hard work, suffering and sacrifice,” said the 76-year-old. 

“I hope my art will help fans understand why and how cải lương is the spirit of Vietnamese people." 


Meritorious Artist Thanh Điền (first left), who has 45 years of experience in Vietnamese theatre. Photo courtesy of the artist

 Điền and his staff are working on a theatre project about a series of cải lương plays in the 1940s-50s.  

Famous plays will be restaged in new versions by young actors of leading theatres and traditional art troupes in HCM City and southern provinces. 

The first play, titled Lan và Điệp (Love Story of Lan and Điệp), a production by well-known scriptwriter Trần Hữu Trang, was restaged in a new version 82 years after its premiere last year. 

The 90-minute play portrays the challenges and suffering faced by Lan, a Vietnamese woman, under the feudal society in the south. It features the themes of love and unfaithfulness.

Điền worked with his partner, young producer Gia Bảo, to rewrite and direct the new version, a mix of cải lương and bolero, a genre of slow-tempo Latin music. 

Actor Chí Tâm, one of the region’s most talented cải lương performers in the 1970s and 80s, and Vietnamese-American comedic actress Hồng Đào play the lead roles. 

“Even though our new version is targeted to young audiences, we offer cải lương in a traditional style,” said Điền, who performed a small role. 

The play will be released soon on YouTube as the best way Điền and his crew can attract fans during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Another project by Điền is 100 Năm Sân Khấu Cải Lương (A Hundred Years of Cải Lương Theatre). 

The project offers TV shows featuring the history of cải lương, songs and plays performed by veteran and young artists. 

The life and career of pioneers, such as People’s Artist Út Trà Ôn, Minh Cảnh and Diệp Lang, are featured. 

The shows also include famous extracts from historical plays staged in the 1950s and 1970s. 

“Our project preserves cải lương by recording and writing the events, the plays and artists since the art form began in Mỹ Tho in Tiền Giang Province,” said Điền. 

“We have travelled and talked with many cultural researchers and historians to optimise our project.”     

100 Năm Sân Khấu Cải Lương has received support from the HCM City Television and HCM City Theatre Association, as well as many young and veteran performers from the city and southern provinces.        


Veteran and young actors of HCM City are working to preserve cải lương. Photo courtesy of the HCM City Theatre Artists' Association

 Born to a traditional family in the Mekong Delta province of Tiền Giang, Điền began his career at an early age.

During his stage debut for the Trường Xuân Troupe in Long Xuyên in 1959, he bowled over the audience with his voice, looks and performance.   

He later performed for leading cải lương troupes in the region, becoming one of the brightest stars in the theatrical genre.

In 1974, he established his own troupe, Xuân Liên Hoa, which attracted young talents, including Thanh Kim Huệ, who later became his wife. 

His strong and melodic voice and stage presence helped Điền leave an indelible mark on the art, enabling him to use his popularity to promote the art form. 

Điền won his first gold prize for his role in Đêm Trắng (Sleepless Night), a play featuring President Hồ Chí Minh, at the National Professional Theatre Festival in 1990 in Hà Nội. 

Điền has also won several top prizes at theatre festivals and contests, including the Golden Prize for best theatre director at the 2003 National Television Festival in HCM City.    

He has performed in more than 300 plays, videos and movies. 

He now works as a lecturer at Trần Hữu Trang Cải Lương Theatre and HCM City University of Theatre and Cinematography.  

“I’m working with Trần Hữu Trang Cải Lương Theatre to offer drama shows starring young talents at VNĐ100,000 (US$4.5) each to serve students and labourers,” Điền said. 

“Điền’s devotion to cải lương is invaluable,” said theatre critic Thanh Hiệp of HCM City Theatre Artists’ Association. VNS