Premiered by the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in January 2014, The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is the first ever Vietnamese opera in the form of a grand opera in Western tradition. It is a dramatic/satiric opera in three acts – ten scenes by P.Q. Phan.

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is the story about the Vietnamese female Buddha whose folk and legendary versions trickle down through generations to expose a feminist story, thus a neutral-tone title to unravel the life of the main character, Thị Kính, up to her metamorphosis into the female Buddha. Cloaked in music and aesthetics that serve as mirrors to reflect Thị Kính’s transformation from one level to the next, the audience is swept back to the tenth century Vietnam.

The sounding of music from the start, with all tone centers in the low range, is very traditional to the point the audience will ease themselves and then get lost in the celebratory atmosphere of an honest agricultural wedding scene. Their senses are slowly getting jolted back to modernity as the story is building up to reach the climax and then a dramatic ending, by now in the sphere of very modern new classical music where tone centers are in higher range and the whole orchestra is ringing heaven down to earth.

Music apart, as Thị Kính lives through her secular life she transforms continuously to become one person after another, making all the sacrifice along the way. At the beginning, as a daughter Thị Kính simply gives up her freedom and personal choice to get married to please her father. In the next scene when she is accused of trying to kill her husband, Thị Kính as a wife accepts to leave the husband’s place just to restore peace to the in-laws’ household. Her sacrifice has already steered her away from the ordinary course of action into the realm of benevolence.

Back to her father’s house on the next scene, once again as a daughter Thị Kính decides to leave his house and join the monastery so that her father does not have to take the blame and bear the shame from her own tragedy. This is an act of complete selflessness as sometimes people enter monkhood for their own good. In this case, her action demonstrates the true sense of Buddhism – that you have to give up sense pleasures before you can achieve spirituality. As so, Thị Kính’s becoming a monk is truly an act of shedding levels of desires in the transformation.

The fascinating aspect of this whole process is the fact that she was not a Buddha in the first place to be reincarnated to become a Buddha again. Instead, flesh-and-bone Thị Kính has to shed at every level to become a real Buddha. The next scene comes when Thị Kính, now Tiểu Kính Tâm the monk, is at the temple. Here, “she” transcends again by staying away from sexual temptation, as the Buddha himself did upon realizing that it was a part of saving grace to enter Nirvana. By turning down the flirty Thị Mầu, Thị Kính/Tiểu Kính Tâm elevates herself to a more sacred level. In a way, she is a closer model of the Buddha himself than one who is reincarnated to become a Buddha.

When Thị Mầu becomes pregnant from her affair with the servant, she claims that Tiểu Kính Tâm/Thị Kính is her lover. At the trial scene, once again, Thị Kính as Tiểu Kính Tâm the monk completes the next level in her spiritual journey by accepting the sins of other people to let them free and give them new lives.

Now the “sinful monk” Tiểu Kính Tâm takes Thị Mầu’s abandoned child in and raises the boy. Treasuring his life as “her” own Tiểu Kính Tâm/Thị Kính is transcending one more time to a higher level and ready for the final transformation. After three years of hardship raising the baby boy, Tiểu Kính Tâm is willing to give up “his” life knowing that everything is arranged for the boy. Tiểu Kính Tâm writes a letter explaining everything and lets go of “his” last breath. Shedding one last time the monk appearance, Tiểu Kính Tâm turns into Thị Kính a Buddha.

Just as the Buddha did not preach to people about how they should live their lives – he only wanted to show them that his life was a good example of how they could free themselves from dukkha, Thị Kính never criticizes or preaches to people during her transformation journey – she simply shows them how she lives her life and that people can do the same thing. Thị Kính finally enters Nirvana – she has transcended to reach the highest level possible in her search for liberation.

Source: Interview with P.Q. Phan, by Anvi Hoàng. 09/10/2011.

A version of this article has been published by Vien Dong Daily News. Online Vietnamese version here.