The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Production Countdown
The directing and staging of an opera involve the realization of numerous complicated concepts both concrete and abstract whose genesis starts with the stage director. Before any piece of wood is cut, any piece of fabric sewn, or any brush inked, stage director is one of the very first to plunge into the work. What is the story really about? What is the best rendition of it? What should the atmosphere feel like? Etc. It is the “etc.” that intrigues any serious opera lovers. They enjoy the behind-the-scenes tour as much as they appreciate any communication the stage director is willing to ‘reveal’ before the performance. Now, you read here first: Stage Director Vince Liotta exposing “Lady Thị Kính.”
What were your thoughts the first time you heard the story of Thị Kính?
From a brief summary of it, my thoughts were that it might be a really good idea for an opera because it is obviously a story to which Phan as librettist and composer feels a connection, and that was important. I also thought it was an interesting story – about this woman who disguises herself as a monk and the way she affects people’s lives, and the whole story about her being abandoned and all of that. It’s got a lot of operatic value to it.
Were you thinking about an American or Vietnamese audience when you found the story interesting?
I was thinking about American audience mostly. One of the things that interests me about the story is that it is wonderfully universal. My feeling about what I can bring to it (and what we need to do) is to make it a story that communicates a Vietnamese-flavored culture but to a non-Vietnamese sensibility. I don’t want it to look like ethnography or cultural anthropology, because if we were going to do that we might as well do the hát chèo drama.
With this opera, you’ve got a composer who writes western-style music. So it’s got to move somewhere between East and West, between Việt Nam and non-Vietnamese culture. And also in the way it is presented, I think it is important that you never lose the sense of the original play being a very old and both well-loved and very traditional Vietnamese theater piece.
So you are going to interpret the story for a global audience?
I think that is the only way you can interpret it. First of all, if we were going to do it in a completely traditional Vietnamese way, I’d say again, you might as well do hát chèo drama. Secondly, I have been to Việt Nam specifically to see hát chèo theater. But I cannot do that – I haven’t got the training for that. So I’ve got to find a way of expressing the things that speak to me about this story, about what I’ve seen of Việt Nam, about what I’ve known of Vietnamese culture from my limited experience with it, and find a way to reinterpret that from my western point of view. If I can do that and if it works for me it will work for other people.
I was in an ethnic graphic museum in Việt Nam, there’s a lot of info there, but you cannot just pick it up and put it on a stage, and you certainly cannot pick it up and put it on the stage for either the Vietnamese audience, interestingly enough, or the Western audience. So in that sense, as a director, I have to go about interpreting The Tale of Lady Thị Kính so that it does not look like cultural anthropology. The reason is that the Vietnamese audience has expectations of what this play is and they’ve known it as an audience culturally for a thousand years. So people even have an expectation of how it should look or how it should be presented, or a cultural sensibility that says, “This is the way we would do it.”
An American audience, on the other hand, has no expectations, given the understanding most Americans have of Vietnamese culture. I am like an anthropologist already and I have a very tiny understanding, but most Americans have no understanding. So if you just throw it on the stage in a culturally and ethnographically correct way so that it looks exactly like the hát chèo play with the costumes, the gestures and everything, an American audience would be baffled. Then it turns around to the Vietnamese when you put it on the stage with a western-style composition, the Vietnamese audience will be baffled.
So the whole trick is to find something that references the Vietnamese cultural elements but still speaks in the language in which it is written which is really western music.
What about Erhard Rom that triggered your choice of him as a designer?
Erhard is an interesting designer in a sense that he is literal enough to be visually accurate, but he takes that literal quality and puts it into a more abstract vocabulary. The visual thing about this piece is that we want it to feel and to look Vietnamese, to have references to architecture, clothing, colors – but not in the literal museum-kind of way.
One thing that is true that I noticed as we were in Việt Nam watching the theater and looking at the costumes, is that if you don’t have that information referenced, if what the audience sees on the stage, be they American or Vietnamese, doesn’t reference what someone who would know it to be, then it’s not going to work for anybody. Because the people who would know it are going to say, “But what has it got to do with?” The people who don’t know it are going to say, “Well, it doesn’t feel very familiar.” That’s the juggling act. And it is true whenever you do anything that has this kind of cross-cultural reference. Any play or opera in that style that is considered good is because you manage to get the cross-cultural part right.
The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is an American opera by a Vietnamese composer who writes in the Western music style based on a thousand year-old story that is telling basically the story exactly as it is. What I think is important is that you make the references to the original piece, the cultural background, but the way you express it is interpreted through the eyes of an American aesthetic sensibility.
Too often I think that cross-cultural comes to mean: pick up something and drop it down in another culture and expect it to somehow magically match together. I don’t think it is that simple. I think what you choose, what you leave out, what you include, the images you use, the images you don’t use, are always a balancing act so that you can speak to everybody and honor the piece, but do it in a way that an audience which doesn’t have that cultural sensibility is going to understand, and hopefully in that way the audience that does, in this case the Vietnamese audience, will see it as an interpretation of a time-honored story and not as an abusing of it, or an ignoring of it, or a demeaning of it, or won’t see it as a negative thing. That is the goal.
How are you going to teach the students the Vietnamese sensibility?
That is the point. You can’t teach them the Vietnamese sensibility. What you have to do is make the whole play feel that it has a Vietnamese sensibility. There are certain things you can teach and certain things you can do – certain gestures, certain way of carrying yourself, for example. A simple one is coloration. People know that if they go see this piece performed by a traditional hát chèo group, there are colors that are associated with people, and the colors are all bright and all strong. Everything has a certain vibrancy to it – that is not Western. But if you use that as part of the language of your Western color iconography it is going to begin to feel more appropriate. You don’t have to make the costume an exact duplicate but you do have to know something about the line of the costume, and the kinds of costumes that different characters wear. So they are equivalent but they are not as obvious as simply trying to mimic something. That is the problem that I’ve seen. When I see people trying to do things that cross cultures, very often the first thing they try and do is mimic something. Guess what, no more can I speak Vietnamese than I could mimic being Vietnamese. But I can make things that feel Vietnamese to the Vietnamese audience while still speaking to the Western audience.
Is there a concept in your direction of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính?
If you talk about a production, a production is ephemeral, it may have a life or it may not. If you’re talking about a work that has life like La Bohème, I don’t know so much that it’s a concept as much as it’s a work that is not so tied up in being specific that it can’t become universal. And coming back to the whole conversation about mixing these cultures, if the opera feels too specifically Vietnamese, then it only speaks to the Vietnamese audience. There is a famous scene where the servant is hiding and the father comes in and kicks him around. The Vietnamese audience sees it and they know it is funny. The Western audience doesn’t see it as funny – they see it as something hurtful. So that is not universal. Those are what you have to work through when you do a work like this, to make it really focus on the part that speaks to everyone.
The composer has his own vision of the production. You have your own. How does it work out between you two?
The idea is trying to keep them all universal. My particular vision for the piece is: I would hope that when the piece is done the audience doesn’t see the acts of Thi Kinh as sacrifice; they see it as the greater good. And there is a difference in that to me. In my reading of Thị Kính, there is nothing that Thị Kính does that is a sacrifice. It is always something that is done because in the long run, it is for the greater good. So it is never that “I’m sacrificing my marriage life to enter the convent,” “I’m sacrificing my life to protect the child.” That’s the wrong way around to me. What the audience has to come out saying is that she knew what she had to do and she did it. That’s the way that, in the best of all possible world, people live – they do what they have to do for the good of the other, whether that’s the many, or the few, or the one – but you do it for the greater good not as the punishment for yourself.
The Vietnamese version of this article has been printed and published online by the Viễn Đông Daily News. Read my online Vietnamese version.
–> Stage Director Vince Liotta to decode Lady Thị Kính (part 2 of 2)
Bio: Stage Director Vincent Liotta has been both a professional stage director and a dedicated educator for more than 40 years. He is currently chair of the Opera Studies Department in the Jacobs School of Music where he teaches stage directing, acting, and operatic literature. As a stage director, he has been involved in creating many world premiere productions. Most recently he conceived and directed the much-acclaimed premiere of Vincent by composer Bernard Rands and librettist J.D. Mc Clatchy for the IU Opera Theatre. Among other notable premieres in which he has taken a creative lead are Cayote Tales by Henry Mollicone; and Too Many Sopranos by IU composer, Edwin Penhorwood. His professional projects have been seen on four continents including Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Puccini’s La Boheme in Seoul, Korea; the eastern European premiere of Bernstein’s Candide for the Romanian National Opera in Cluj-Napoca, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, as well as La fanciulla del West at the Canadian National Opera in Toronto. Mr. Liotta’s operatic repertory covers the entire history of opera from Cavalli to John Corigliano. In 1993, Liotta co-founded the Utah Festival Opera. In addition to directing, Liotta has authored and translated works for the musical theater include a new libretto for Victor Herbert’s operetta, Naughty Marietta, and Viva Verdi, an original biographical evening about the life and work of Giuseppe Verdi. He has done new English translations for The Merry Wives of Windsor and Orlando Paladino in addition to a new libretto for The Merry Widow. For many years, he has collaborated with Harold Prince on productions of Turandot and Don Giovanni as well as the world premiere of Willie Stark.
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