Journey of an Opera (9) – Logic East and West

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Creation Series

Digital art work by Hoàng Ngọc Biên

In a work that crosses cultures like The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, it is essential to have people from outside to read and make comments to see where it stands. After finishing the libretto for The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, PQ Phan arranged a reading for it. His colleagues in ethnomusicology, conducting, and voice came to lend a hand. Each chose a role, and started reading aloud.

The English and the grammar

Their suggestions for changes in grammar were very useful for Phan: add “the” here, replace “to” with “for,” etc. With the colleagues’ help, the libretto looks and sounds better.

The culture

Besides the language, the music experts also made suggestions or asked unexpected questions that could make the author come down on one side of the fence or the other – the one about a Vietnamese wedding procedure being a case in point. At the ceremony, Thị Kính and Thiện Sĩ take three bows to heaven, earth, and their parents. Even though it is a cultural thing to do, this makes no sense to the Western audience. The suggestion is to take it out. For an explanation, Phan admitted it is true the bowing is meaningless to Western social tradition but if taken out, it destroys the entire atmosphere about Vietnamese culture, the way it is supposed to be. A solution for this is for stage director and set designer to create an opera that looks and feels Vietnamese so that the audience can accept the cultural nuances without questions.

Then, when it comes to humor, people usually want to see things they are familiar with, which is a natural thing. So at the scene where the three comical characters of Thầy Bói the blind, Cụ Đồ the deaf, Cụ Hương the dumb, are trying to show off, the readers did not see them as funny the way Vietnamese people do. Instead, these characters remind them of the monkey shows, which led to their suggestion of enlarging their roles giving them more meaning and turning them into three monkeys that cannot see, hear or talk. Understandable as the suggestion is, the adjustment would present a completely different concept. In chèo, the funny details are there just to entertain the old time audience who had a whole night long to kill. The comical characters are probably added for this specific purpose and even though they carry potential symbolic meanings, they are not what the story is about. Giving them bigger roles would distract the audience from the main characters and turn The Tale of Lady Thị Kính into a stand-up comedy.

Leaving the three characters the way they are didn’t work either for the western audience. Several months into the project, Phan finally decided to cut this part. Three roles are lost, but the story maintains its universal appeal.

The logic

Not only are outside readers good cultural critics, they also give the librettist an opportunity to step back and look at his own thinking, sometimes with a new perspective. This is when the “hair issue” comes into the picture.

Thị Kính is at the in-law’s house. One night as Thiện Sĩ is sleeping, she notices a single hair growing backward from his chin. As she is trying to cut it, Thiện Sĩ awakes and accuses her of trying to kill him, triggering the whole charade responsible for her life mishaps. The readers questioned: What about this single hair that people make a big deal out of it? Exactly right. No Vietnamese has ever asked this question before. They have lived in and breathed this Vietnamese air of the story for a thousand years to the point they don’t think about it anymore.

Now that Phan comes to think about it, he believes the hair, even in Vietnamese standard, doesn’t mean anything either. It is simply a silly excuse to create all the drama for the story. The folklore authors wanted to say that even one stupid little thing can trigger something big to happen. Because to put it simply, if the hair bore some serious meaning, that it is a bad omen and needs to be removed, the parents-in-law would not have made a big deal about Thị Kính cutting it.

On another level, the hair as a stupid excuse is used to show that the value of a woman’s life is equal to something meaningless, that society values women so little. That is a way for the peasant creators to criticize society. Maybe this detail has not been analyzed before by Vietnamese critics because it is our culture, we are Vietnamese, and we think we understand it. In fact, we don’t – like something you hear so often you think you understand but you don’t. Even the performers in the old time, they may not understand the significance of the hair detail they added here, but subconsciously, they meant to say that the value of a woman’s life is next to nothing.

Phan does not have to change anything about the hair detail, he simply gained an insight into his own work.

*****

The reading has inarguably some value to it. Phan has to realize, however, that what others say sometimes is constructive, sometimes destructive. It is his call to do the final cut.

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

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3 thoughts on “Journey of an Opera (9) – Logic East and West

  1. Hi An Vi, I thought it was quite silly to remove the bowing scenes in the wedding. It’s precisely because Asian couples bow to their parents at weddings that there is this huge amount of deference to in-laws. Without the bowing, how would we understand the amount of accomodation that married couples must make for their parents?

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