Quan Âm Thị Kính (The Benevolent Lady Thị Kính), an ancient Vietnamese folk art, was transformed by P.Q. Phan into The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, a grand opera in Western tradition. This dramatic/satiric opera in three acts – ten scenes will be premiered by the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in January 2014.
The genesis of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is P.Q. Phan’s passion for chèo – traditional Vietnamese theater or a type of Vietnamese opera. Of all chèo stories, P.Q. Phan finds Quan Âm Thị Kính, a story about the Vietnamese female Buddha, the most fascinating. His own study and research led him to believe that Quan Âm Thị Kính is a true Vietnamese national treasure: it is a Vietnamese story; it is contributed and perfected over ten decades by Vietnamese working people – as all folk stories are; it is a reflection of the Vietnamese people’s wishes for love and justice and their desires for a better society down generations; and it has high musical, social, cultural, and historical values.
P.Q. Phan’s The Tale of Lady Thị Kính was created based on this story of Quan Âm Thị Kính. The composer took on the grave responsibility of transforming this significant Vietnamese opera into one that is fit for the Western stage. He put on the pedestal the task of preserving the qualities that makes Quan Âm Thị Kính the treasure it is, and The Tale of Lady Thị Kính the joy it will hopefully become. These qualities are, among others, the clever language and the highly symbolic characters.
A reading through the libretto of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, one cannot but be taken aback by the intelligent satire and clever spun visible throughout the story. Listen to Mãng Ông bragging as he first appears on stage (note that Vietnamese dozen equals ten):
Nhà tôi giàu giảu giàu giàu Xém mười trâu đầy một chục. Lợn thì nhung nhúc Kém mười chục đầy một trăm. Gà chạy lăng xăng Kém mười lăm con đầy chục rưỡi.
My house is rich … too filthy rich to be real! Ten more buffalo ... I will have a dozen. There are so many pigs, With ten dozen more ... I will have a hundred. Chickens run all over, And with fifteen more ... I will have a dozen and a half.(*)
Without a penny in his pocket, and Mãng Ông can talk of “fullness” like that. How clever!
P.Q. Phan also thinks the spun in the play is unmatched. His favorite moment is when Thiện Sĩ came over to Mãng Ông’s house to ask for his daughter’s hands in marriage. He said to Mãng Ông:
Vậy con đến để trần duyên sự. Văn thanh nhà cụ sinh nàng thục nữ, Vậy con xin bán tử hầu người.
I am here to express my wish for the union With the lovely, fair lady of your house. I would lose my life to serve you best! (*)
On hearing that, Mãng Ông replied: “Dear Heaven!!! Why have you spoken such an omen? I am near the age to enter the world beyond. Why would you lose your life to serve me best?” (Anh trần duyên sự chi mà lạ vậy? Tôi bằng này tuổi còn thiếu gì cái chết mà anh lại sang bán tử, sang bán cái chết cho tôi à?) (*)
Thiện Sĩ meant to lose his life to serve as a son-in-law (tử), whereas Mãng Ông wanted to tease him by interpreting “tử” as “death” which is another meaning of “tử” as “son.” See who is playing the upper hand!
Additionally, Mãng Ông responded in prose instead of verse, which contrasted to the uniform verse style of the script. This shows that the exchange was in fact included later on by the peasant performers who were looking for some light-hearted entertainment at this time of year following the harvest season.
Based on the entertaining portion of the opera, which is major, targeting the peasant audience, the attraction of the original Quan Âm Thị Kính comes from the satiric language embedded in everyday life of the Vietnamese peasants in the countryside. It is not farfetched to say that the peasant creators of Quan Âm Thị Kính had the talent to cling to the draconic land (đất rồng) to flourish: the closer the language is to the land, the better it can root in the hearts of the people. This is one reason Quan Âm Thị Kính retains its appeal over time till today. The performance of the The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh on American stage will be one step further in preserving this legacy.
(*) P.Q. Phan. The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh, libretto. P.Q.Phan Publishing, 2009.