Journey of an Opera (4) – Day and Night: East-West Theater Traditions

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Creation Series

Digital art work by Hoang Ngoc Bien

Research for the libretto of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính started with the script of the Vietnamese traditional theater (chèo), Quan Âm Thị Kính. The best-known work of its kind, “Quan Âm Thị Kính” has various oral versions collected and preserved in writing by several authors, each choosing to keep and omit different things. PQ Phan, creator of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, needed to go through several collections and combine them into one version of his own. What made his task easy is that most of the collections are quite similar, the difference being only in the wording and minor details.

Time Element in Chèo and Opera Traditions 

After sieving the Vietnamese collections to have one unique script in Vietnamese, Phan read back and forth between the pages to decipher every single word, every single phrase, and every conversation. The tricky part for him is if he sets this new original script to music, the opera will last four hours. In the modern time, no one would tolerate that. Richard Wagner was able to write 4-hour operas because there was neither television nor abundant entertainment at the time. To have four hours to sit in the theater to enjoy oneself was considered a luxury. Today, there are so many distractions and attractions including entertainment. Two hours is the most you can ask from the audience. That would translate into two hours and forty-five minutes in actual theater time including intermissions. People are not allowed to sit there watching and eating popcorn or roasted peanuts at the same time, so three hours is long, indeed.

Given the time restraint, the next step for Phan is to trim some details but still allow the new opera to stay true to the chèo story. In Vietnamese chèo there is the prologue (giáo đầu) – a tremendously long passage that tells people what is going to happen in the story and how it is going to end. This is a Vietnamese story-telling feature favored by the old-time peasants as they scurried around looking for a spot to settle down for the show. In the western tradition the prologue is intentionally short, short enough to ease the audience into their quiet mode to get ready for the performance. Phan thinks it’s wise to stick with this. As a result, the long chèo prologue was the first to go.

The Orchestra-the Chorus-the Ect.

Studying the combined Vietnamese script of Quan Âm Thị Kính, Phan was pondering the traditional western grand opera. The word “grand opera” has obvious implications: (1) A large cast – which is good because Quan Âm Thị Kính has a large cast; (2) A large orchestra – this is way surpassing the traditional practice of chèo where the ensemble traditionally requires five to seven instruments. Phan noted that the size of the orchestra affects the text and music setting that he would deal with later. (3) A chorus – this is the most different feature of all because all Vietnamese operas require no chorus. The reason for this can be traced back to an underlying economic consideration of a troupe put together by a few farming families to perform off season. During the chèo performance, the audience would occasionally hear something like a chorus behind the stage but it turned out to be the voice of only several people singing not to herald anything but to respond to some rhetorical questions or interact with the actor on stage.

In the West it would not do without a chorus because of the emphasis on stage spectacle – if you don’t see a lot of people on stage it is not exciting enough. At this point, in his attempt to present The Tale of Lady Thị Kính as a standard Western opera Phan was forced to create new passages for the chorus. With this first major adjustment it suddenly dawned on him that he was actually going to reconstruct the script instead of just translating it.

The second adjustment was dictated by thoughts about Western logic in story-telling techniques. While a Vietnamese chèo performance is concerned about a good story that can be stretched throughout the night to entertain the audience, logic is not a priority in the process, stretch-ability is. A logical Western story, on the other hand, requires all details to be tightly connected. If they are not concise and related, they are irrelevant. Phan knew his job is to tighten up some details and shuffle things around a little to create a solid Western-styled construction for his opera story.

Logic aside, Western behavior also generates comparisons that need to be justified. Thus the third consideration. In most Vietnamese operas, people only sing together when they agree, and that is part of their philosophy. In another word, they do not sing together when they disagree. At the same time, their conversation literally follows one another without interruption to show propriety and respect. Phan knew these would not play well with Western audience because assertiveness is key to western behavior and interruption part of reality. If people are excited or disagree they interrupt immediately, and they sing together to express harmony as well as conflicting feelings at their climax. Needless to say, Phan must speed up the conversations in his opera and create interactions that register with the Western mind and sparkle cultural curiosity and imagination, all at the same time.

Taking up those musical, cultural, and philosophical challenges, Phan decided to translate and add more to the combined Vietnamese script by reconstructing it, turning it into the libretto of his opera, The Tale of Lady Thị Kính. He was writing a story that keeps the core and its integrity about a Vietnamese girl who metamorphoses into a female Buddha, with details and a structure easily recognizable by all Vietnamese and enjoyable by Western audience. In Phan’s mind, the libretto has taken a full shape.

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

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