Journey of an Opera (11) – Concept of Music

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Creation Series

The transcendent concept of the opera The Tale of Lady Thị Kính also translates into its music. Over all, the music starts with something naïve, bright, almost too cheerful, even cheesy, as PQ Phan described it. As the story progresses the music becomes more serious, darker, more sacred and more dramatic. Musically speaking, the tone centers become higher and higher to reflect the transcendent concept. So much so that the ending is completely in contrast to the beginning.

Balancing aspiration and inspiration

Before actually getting down to music, Phan reminds that he has to think first about the philosophy of an opera: What is an opera? In the world of art for art’s shake, especially from the 20th century on, it is difficult to determine what an opera is. Some people think it is something that has to be musically innovative for two hours, or absolutely creative throughout. Phan agrees with the innovative and creative part of an opera, but he believes that when the philosophy of an opera is included in the discussion, an opera itself represents a completely different art form than a symphony, requiem, or mass. It has to deal with the audience in the way of entertainment. The opera composer has to constantly think about the balance between aspiration and inspiration – the first is about how much you want to reach people, and the latter how much to “preach.” A fine balance, indeed. In most of the successful operas, Phan believes their composers have picked the right balance between these two elements. Don Giovanni, Magic Flute, for example, are clearly sources of inspiration for many people, still.

With The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, Phan has to choose which part to entertain and which part to inspire. Musically, the pick and choose is done through the songs for each character. Thị Kính’s arias, by all means, are not to entertain. In many senses, they mean to inspire or to preach people. As the texts of the songs suggest, they preach morality and religious belief – over all, a way of living. To infuse an element of entertainment into these arias would be ridiculous. Therefore, inspiration they are! As Thị Kính grows in life, the arias are changing accordingly to match her spiritual journeys.

A girl

From the beginning, Thị Kính’s aria is about what it means to be a woman. Simple as it is, the text suggests that to be a woman means to serve the family, the husband, and the society. Thị Kính now is a young girl singing out what she is taught without thinking about it, let alone questioning the duty per se. So, not judging the quality of the statement, the music is naïve and bright.

A woman

In the next aria, Thị Kính sings about marital love, e.g. her duty as a married woman. Again, preaching is the tone, not entertainment. Her maturity at this stage shows more in the marriageable age she is, but not through her life experience as a human being yet with an understanding of the meaning of life. As a result, the music has certain naïve quality, is still joyous with only a slight touch of seriousness.

A Skeptic

The moment Thị Kính decides to give up her secular life to become a monk, she becomes a real adult. She starts to question not only the role of women but also the state of being human. To reflect all that, the music is not wandering aimlessly but moves directly from low to high, as if saying “Hah, I find the answers.” These are not the most crucial answers for the biggest questions of Thị Kính’s life but they are major and the music behaves accordingly.

In the flirting scene at the temple, Thị Mầu holds a bigger role while Thị Kính a supporting one consistently “chanting” her determination to be a monk. Even though sparse, Thị Kính’s singing  reflects her concern about what her life is turning to be once Thị Mầu falls in love with her. This skepticism is a sign of a more mature woman who realizes that life is no longer simple and monk-hood is not the ultimate answer for her life. Through this particular aria, Thị Kính learns that things are evolving beyond her imagination and planning.


At the trial of Thị Mầu’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Thị Kính is there but her aria – simply about her innocence – is not important. Phan says perhaps the only significant thing about the aria is the talk to herself. Thinking that her life is in turmoil and ruined, Thị Kính believes she might as well accept the blame to grant Thị Mầu a new life. This is growth of maturity at a higher level, for when she becomes a monk, it is for her own good; now she accepts the blame for others’ sake she actually transcends to become someone better than herself. This is a reflection of Buddhism, that you start to give things away – a part of yourself to receive something else. Here again, she still does not know what is going to happen to her, therefore the music does not show the derivative goal of going from point A to point B. Instead, it shows the happenings.


In Scene 9 when Thị Kính gets kicked out of the temple, story wise and music wise, there is nothing more important than the concept that the temple is no longer her shelter, but the sacred fig is. One sees a parallel with the Buddhist concept of Buddha becoming an Enlightened One while sitting under the sacred fig, not in the temple – for Thị Kính, too, would not be enlightened had she not been kicked out of the temple. So the aria about leaving the temple is almost like an introduction to a bigger aria when she’s singing about taking the baby to the market place – a climatic moment in her journey and also of the story. The baby here is put under the tree and the sacred fig itself is the starting point for her eventful spiritual journey.


“Taking the baby to the marketplace” is the most important aria for Thị Kính, very transcendent in many levels. The text itself, going to the marketplace, means moving from one place to another just like the movement from one stage to the next in the transcendent process. Musically, it starts less emotional to become more so; the music goes from low to high and from calm to become more urgent.

At this point, the overall music of the opera is already very modernistic and with very little sense of nationalism, than the beginning where it is close to Vietnamese traditional music. In fact, the music in the end is closer to universalism – it could be from anybody from any nationality, as long as they are humans. The quality of music has been changing to portray the concept of how one person transcends to be a more supreme being.

“Taking the baby to the marketplace” aria later on is being enlarged to turn into a long aria when Thị Kính tells her life story from Nirvana in the last part of the opera. These two arias are very much similar, except the latter is expanded and its augmentation shows not only in a single line, several modulation or transposition, but also in the volume and the size as well. For, towards the end, many people join in to sing and create the tour de force that literally helps to paint a picture of reality mixed with dreams: that ultimately an ordinary being can become a supreme one. Thị Kính indeed holds the musical concept for the whole opera.

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

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