Journey of an Opera (5): The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, Act I – The Wedding and the Conflicts

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Creation Series

Digital art work by Hoàng Ngọc Biên

Actual work on the libretto of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is a parallel process between translating and reconstructing the Vietnamese script. PQ Phan already cut the prologue (giáo đầu) and replaced it with the short overture instead. In terms of function, they serve the same purpose of rounding up people and calming them down, making them know that the opera is about to start.

Act I Scene 1 – Thiện Sĩ comes to Mãng Ông’s house to ask for Thị Kính’s hand in marriage. Thị Kính accepts the proposal in order to show herself a good daughter. The new couple then sing together to celebrate a happy life. This Vietnamese version is perfect for what it is but unfortunately not glamorous enough for the western stage where the first scene requires something extravagant that serves as an instant attraction to wow the audience. As a result, Phan decided to utilize the chorus right at the beginning to create the excitement and also to set up the seasonal timing which is an essential element in his opera. In Phan’s mind it is ideal for the opera to start in Spring when people begin to look for mates, thus the lively chorus singing celebrating Spring. Summer is time for activities and that would be the village scene – Scene 2. And Fall is an indication of death or the end of a life cycle when Thị Kính cuts her hair to become a monk – Scene 3.

So the text for the chorus is about Spring: Spring arrives, life is vibrant, everything is lush, and people look for love. That sets the season and the reason for Thiện Sĩ to walk out and sing about his loneliness and his need for a wife. This whole section is brand new and a creation by Phan.

After Thị Kính agrees to marry Thiện Sĩ, instead of having them sing a happy song about marriage right away, Phan has his family, the Sùngs, bring the dowry over as an indication of a wedding. The action also creates a sense of skepticism in the air when the audience realize on stage that the Sùng family is rich and the Mãngs poor. People will question whether this marriage will last forever. The two families set aside differences to gather at the wedding for now but omens of disaster already reveal themselves, one more time in their singing. To celebrate the wedding they sing about the duty of a woman but not that of a man. In a sense that puts a lot of pressure on women and indicates that if anything goes wrong, it is the women that are to blame. A sense of something fatal about to happen is lurking behind their happiness.

Phan’s vision for the end of this scene is realized: the chorus and the two families are already on stage, thus a wedding scene heaving into sight; the facility is more than adequate to accommodate whatever he visualized. Pushing forward, after Thị Kính agrees to marry Thiện Sĩ, Phan closes the scene with an elaborate wedding – the first grand finale it is.

Act I Scene 2 – Thị Kính is accused of trying to kill her husband. Phan keeps all the details in the Vietnamese script yet emphasizes a little more, musically, on the role of Sùng Bà, Thị Kính’s mother-in-law, as a way to introduce the contrast between different types of women in society. The interaction between Sùng Bà – the privileged, and Thị Kính – the underprivileged, creates tension where people see that women can be very cruel to their own kind. Phan thinks that is interesting.

Act I Scene 3 – Thị Kính disguises as a man and goes to the temple to seek monkhood. The original chèo version glorifies this moment as if it is an honor and a privilege to become a monk. Not wishing to insert a religious interpretation here or to tell the audience whether it is painful or honorable to be a monk, Phan ends the scene with Thị Kính singing about cutting her hair and disguising herself as a monk.

Act I Scene 4 – The Vietnamese script starts with Thị Mầu going to the temple and making efforts at flirtation towards Tiểu Kính Tâm – Thị Kính the monk. In the end, Thị Mầu gives up. Simple to the barebones. This scene is, in Phan’s view, one of the most important in the opera but does not bring out enough conflict between the characters as Phan expected. He decided to reconstruct it in a big way.

First, the previous act ends in Fall, so now it is Spring again. Phan has the chorus come out and sing about Spring. Thị Mầu prepares her offering for the Spring first temple visit just like everyone else, and contemplates an opportunity to fall in love with Mr. Right. Phan then creates a true group of friends for Thị Mầu to play a literal role of her internal personality, and to play out the constant struggles between good and evil within herself. Eventually, much more colorful and complicated than the mono-dimension dialogue between Thị Mầu and Thị Kính in the original script, Thị Mầu’s flirting with Thị Kính turns into a “ménage à trois” between Thị Mầu, Thị Kính, and Thị Mầu’s friends/Thị Mầu’s internal personality. At the high peak of conflict, the chorus enter the stage and join the conversation representing the public opinion. By now, the four forces conflict with one another and create a new four-dimension setting which highlights the drama significantly to the level that meets the expectation of a western grand opera.

Act I Scene 5 – Thị Mầu has an affair with her servant. The scene is dramatic enough for Phan to leave anything intact. The ending of Act I with this affair creates a suspense to be revealed in Act II.

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

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2 thoughts on “Journey of an Opera (5): The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, Act I – The Wedding and the Conflicts

  1. So informative and insightful! It helps to learn what went through the composer’s mind while creating an opera — what to take from the original story, what to leave out, what and how to innovate parts for targeted audience,etc. It would be interesting to learn the decisions other collaborators had to make!

    • Thanks for your very nice comment, Hiromi :-). And yes, you will hear from the stage director, set designer, etc. later on. They have huge voices on the production part.

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