Journey of an Opera (2) – How to Tell the Story

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Creation Series

Now that the opera project started to roll, P.Q. Phan was focusing on the next step which was how to tell the story to the American audience. He was juggling the extent to which the original story of Quan Âm Thị Kính should be kept and the way he would like to tell the story as he visualized it as an artist – because in spite of himself, the new version of the story would be his intellectual property, and his authorship had started from the moment he initiated the creation process.

Chèo traditions

Adapting the story of Thị Kính to properly serve the audience is not a new thing. In fact, it is a custom in chèo. Numerous versions of the existing script themselves are clear evidence of all the changes and additions over time. In the beginning, Quan Âm Thị Kính was a simple story of a young lady’s tragic short life: agreeing to get married to please her father, then being wrongfully accused of trying to kill her husband, then leaving home to become a monk only to be seduced at the temple, denying any wrong doing, leaving the temple, dying and becoming Buddha.

In chèo performances, however, there are so many details that have been added to the script to reflect the values of the peasant culture rather than those of the higher class. Researchers have agreed on the significance of these details since it is very clear to them that all the peasants are invariably portrayed as good characters, whereas the upper class, from the teacher down to the village chief and the head monk, are on the opposite side of the moral scale.

The village performance is usually timed to coincide with the end of the harvest season when peasants finish with the crops and have long nights for entertainment, which results in the improvising nature of the chèo performances. To fill up time and retain the audience through the night, every time the peasant-actors performed the play, they would add something and remove something else as the situation required – be it a story-telling element to warm up the audience’s heart, or a joke to shake up a sleepy face. Every recorded script garnered is evidence of these changes.

On the first scene, for example, when Mãng Ông appears, he goes on and on about who he is, in a prolonged passage very much irrelevant to the story itself so much so that if taken out, the story still stays intact. The same thing is true of the word game between Vợ Mõ and Lý Trưởng, since there is no need for this back-and-forth banter between the two of them, and deleting this passage would not change the story in any way. Similarly, the scene where Phú Ông walks in on Thị Mầu and Nô is not an important detail because being caught or not, Thị Mầu is still pregnant. However, the purpose of Phú Ông’s intervention is significant in that it shows the bad behavior of a typical mandarin. Alas, these additions allow the peasant performers not only to have fun and enjoy themselves, but also to entertain their fellow peasant audience.

Extending chèo tradition into the 21st century

Those old additions and changes have been recorded and preserved in writing. After all, the peasant-performers aim to highlight their lives making it known that uneducated people can be very clever and can defeat the upper class at their own game. Now facing American audience, Phan thinks it is his turn to tell the story his own way. American opera goers are not wired to enjoy the light-hearted entertainment aimed at momentarily elevating their social status. Phan would have to consider, therefore, which details to keep and which to eliminate. By doing that, he doesn’t kill the integrity of the play. On the contrary, his act is part of the chèo tradition and a way to extend its tradition in the modern time.

While some people like to tell the story highlighting the Head Monk, Sư Cụ, to promote Buddhism, Phan thinks the Head Monk’s is an act of covert hypocrisy and cannot be interpreted in keeping with Buddhist teachings. Sư Cụ keeps saying the temple is there for everyone but he later denies Thị Kính shelter just because he dares not go against the village traditions. Phan strongly believes that if read carefully, the original script professes one fundamental belief that all peasants share: that if you live your life for goodness and a higher cause, eventually you can become a Buddha. This is what Thị Kính does and it is the core and integrity of the story never to lose sight of. The rest of the details will be sieved as Phan pens his own libretto.

Now that the first page is in sight, what should the title be?

***** The Vietnamese version of this article has been published by the Vien Dong Daily News, also available online here.

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