Journey of an Opera (1) – Before the First Page

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Creation Series

P.Q. Phan‘s love of chèo was kindled by the hát bội performances (a type of Vietnamese traditional theater) that he watched as a young boy in his village communal house. It grew as he made in-depth study of chèo at college. When in graduate school working on his second masters degree in musicology, he took the opportunity to realize his passion for chèo in a thesis on Vietnamese traditional theater. Throughout his career, Phan has brought his childhood experience and academic knowledge into his music.

His study led him to believe that of all Vietnamese chèo stories, Quan Âm Thị Kính (a story about the Vietnamese female Buddha) is a true cultural gem. Prompted by this realization he nourished the idea of writing an opera based on this story of Thị Kính. One of the questions constantly on his mind was how to write a Western-styled opera that would be as good as, or even better than, the existing Vietnamese original.

Quan Âm Thị Kính, in P.Q. Phan’s opinion, is perfect in every way – the language is clever and beautiful; the story strikingly moving and memorable; the music marvelously in resonance with the language. Generally speaking, to write a work that would not detract from the quality of something so significant to Vietnamese culture is a real challenge and a tremendous responsibility. From Phan’s point of view, to write something not as good as the original story is a personal failure, and to write something that is so bad as to even destroy its meaning is an act of betrayal. All these thoughts and calculations translate to his anxious wait for the right moment when he feels he can do it.

Phan spent two years from 2005 to 2007 working on his first opera, Lorenzo de’ Medici, at the same time campaigning to have it performed at Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University. After its eventual concert in 2007, his colleagues said that they liked the music very much, but they were not terribly touched by the story. Phan then said he had a different story for them. He told the story of Quan Âm Th Kính and right away they were enthralled by it. Phan saw a start.

It was the start of a process where people fell in love with the story and felt they could make a connection with it. It was a start also because Phan felt he was ready for the task – a “double responsibility,” as he described it. He was excited to embark on a new journey of rendering Quan Âm Th Kính for the American audience, portraying something he loved dearly in such a way that would betray neither his artistic-and-emotional self, nor the (Vietnamese) audience who also know Quan Âm Th Kính and love it dearly. He called his new opera The Tale of Lady Th Kính.

The risks involved in creating The Tale of Lady Th Kính are similar to those people face when they try to make the book they love into a movie. Most of the time they fail. People love to read the story with the guidance of their imagination but when they actually see it on the big screen they don’t find it appealing in the least. Memoirs of a Geisha is a case in point. For Phan, Quan Âm Th Kính works beautifully on a make-shift village stage, will The Tale of Lady Th Kính fit on the Western grand stage without its integrity being killed? This is the question every true artist must consider before they take any action.

After finishing Lorenzo de’ Medici and learning more about what the audience like and dislike, plus years of cumulative experience in writing vocal music, Phan was ready to roll up his sleeves for The Tale of Lady Thị Kính. The next thought process would be how to tell the story.


The Vietnamese version of this article has been published by The Vien Dong Daily News.

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