Journey of an Opera (10) – Concept of the Opera

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Creation Series

For a short composition based on a spur of the moment there is no need to have a concept. It is absolutely necessary, however, for a work of a large size, 2-hour long for example, to be unified by a concept. Without it, everything in the work will become grains of sand.

Where does the concept come from?

Talking about The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, PQ Phan says that concept is something that doesn’t come to you right away. You keep thinking about it and thinking about it – in the shower, during the meal, on bed, in the car – basically whatever you do you think about it. It actually takes a while for a concept to come. You cannot take it for granted, though, because not all large works have concepts. These fail and we no longer know them. Those do, they are successful and still get performed today.

For example, Carmen is, at least this is one way to analyze it, incredible because of its concepts of love, pleasure and cruelty. Carmen represents free love and free spirit, while her boyfriend love and cruelty. These concepts interweave and go through the whole opera. One can clearly see the expression of this in Carmen’s death in the ending. It appears to be simple but how she gets killed is what is stirring: during a bull game. The interpretation is that the killing of a woman is comparable to a bull fight. Bull fight is something people do because they love it. It is also one area where passion and cruelty exist simultaneously. The mixture of the three concepts of love, passion and cruelty in Carmen’s death brings up intense drama, an element very much needed in an opera.

Another way to talk about concept is that it is like philosophy. It goes beyond the story to talk about something deeper. For example, Romeo and Juliet is a story about love. At the same time, a mature audience can see that through this love story, Shakespeare is hammering feudalism and the meaningless of the system. The story is an artistic means to criticize society.

Concept for The Tale of Lady Thị Kính

Of all Vietnamese chèo (traditional theater) performances, Quan Âm Thị Kính is the most loved, probably because it has a clear concept that resonates with a majority of the Vietnamese. So for Phan to work on the concept for his new opera The Tale of Lady Thị Kính based on the script of Quan Âm Thị Kính, that is an arduous task.

On one hand, Phan believes the concept from the author/composer is individual – there is no fixed concept for a certain story. People may like different things about the story and therefore interpret it in different ways. On the other hand, there are details that people cannot change – though they can still pick and choose how they portray them. These cornerstone details have to find their way into the main concept of a story.

In The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, one such detail is Thị Kính’s background: she comes from a poor family. This crucial detail is to keep because it means that the story is about, or at least from the perspective of, the common people and not the mandarin class. Hundreds of years ago, the peasant authors put all the efforts into creating a main character who was poor but who went on to become a legendary figure of the time – a female Buddha. They knew this was not reality, but at least they could dream about it. This dream has to be respected.

As one reads through the script from the first to the last scenes and witnesses Thị Kính in action at her father’s farm home, to the in-law’s, to the temple, at the market, beneath the sacred fig, and in Nirvana, one sees these dots that when connected portray a journey of growth from the lowest level – commoner, to the highest one – Buddha. For Phan, the concept of transcendence is clear. This will be the concept of his opera – aesthetically and musically. The story and the music will develop revolving around Thị Kính. Other characters such as Thị Mầu, Sùng Bà, Thiện Sĩ appear a lot  but how big and significant a role they play depends on how supportive they should be to the main character of Thị Kính.

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

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