Quan Âm Thị Kính (The Benevolent 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.
As conventional in folklore practices, characters in chèo are oftentimes presented as a means to criticize social norms and traditions. Quan Âm Thị Kính is a case in point. Many characters in Quan Âm Thị Kính have a very short appearance but one that is striking and memorable. So are they in P.Q. Phan’s The Tale of Lady Thị Kính.
Cụ Đồ is an intellectual of the village – he is deaf. He likes to tell people what to do, but he cannot listen to them. Thầy Bói, the fortune-teller, is to “see” the future, but he is blind. In other words, he can “see” so far but cannot see so close. Cụ Hương is a philanthropist, and he is dumb. There is no way he can help get things done if he cannot talk. In the trial of Thị Mầu’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, the three of them are focusing on trying to secure the best chairs around the table to showcase their highest positions in society. That is all they care about. They do not bother to pay any attention to the matter of justice at hand.
The contradictory images between the characters’ personality and their social status provide a laughing-stock. This laughter is intentionally created because laughter is another characteristic of chèo. In most cases, laughter is meant to be humorous; in others, it is meant to be satiric towards the hypocrite. Either way, chèo is a realistic reflection of social life in the countryside.
Along the line of this discussion, P.Q. Phan states:
“Only in Quan Âm Thị Kính are there so many humorous sections, and they all aim at trumping the pillar characters in society. If we take away these humor sections considered to be added in by the peasant performers, what is left of the play is a religious story. This original story is told in proper language whereas the additions use a vernacular one.” (*)
As The Tale of Lady Thị Kính has formed its parallel life along Quan Âm Thị Kính, another layer of characters stands out as a collection of critical voices wishing to tell their stories. Under the social kaleidoscope, Thị Kính represents the righteous, kind and generous people; Vợ Mõ is in for lower class people who are intelligent and wise; Thị Mầu is one for free love. To have a tenth-century story like The Tale of Lady Thị Kính featuring an esteemed female character (Thị Kính) as the center of all social tension is a dream-come-true story for Women Studies scholars, at least.
On the last note, set in ancient time Korea, the story of Thị Kính has been Vietnamized over time. Would the Vietnamese people have given the story a Korean setting in order to make it easier for them to voice the criticism? We may never know for sure. What we are certain is that the story of Thị Kính has great historical, cultural and social values that still resonate today. Without the contribution from the peasant, that would have been impossible.
(*) P.Q. Phan. Interview by Anvi Hoàng. 09/10/2011.