Journey of an Opera (13): Pure Joy of a 2-Year Term Pregnancy

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Creation Series

Hanh trinh-13

As the creation of the The Tale of Lady Thị Kính has come to an end, Phan sat down for a heart-to-heart chat about the whole process.

What are the challenges of writing an opera?

First of all, it is the duration of the work. How to entertain people and keep them interested for an entire event of 2 hours is challenging. The story alone is never enough – one can easily tell it within 5 minutes. To put that to music and make it last 2 hours and hope the audience sit there and enjoy it is quite a challenge.

The audience can be pleasantly distracted by spectacular spectacles on stage but those things could become tedious after a while. Ultimately it has to be the music. It has to be powerful, attractive, emotional, and expressive enough to keep people on their seats at all time. Good music alone is not enough. It has to be something magical – something that when people listen to they have goose bumps. The challenge is how to create at least one magical moment in an opera. Without that, one can perceive that the opera is a failure.

How does one create that magical moment? From details of the story?

The story can be a guideline, but the magical moment is how to do it and has very little to do with the story. It takes a genius to do that, for you can give the same story to another composer and they can never be able to do anything with it. For me, I strived to do something that is so effective that it is hardly explainable – that is equivalent to a magical moment.

Are there many magical moments in your opera?

This opera has a series of magical moments that escalate from one scene to the next. Toward the end, it has the most magical moment of all.

Will the audience perceive them as magical moments as you do?

It will not be a surprise for people to perceive them differently, but at least on my part I have planned them. I think the audience will see and feel that there is a magical moment in every scene.

The interesting thing is if we create too many magical moments, the opera will be distracted. It is better to focus on one magical moment for each scene escalating to the most magical moment of all at the accession. While Thị Kính transcends to enter another realm to become a higher being, the music is touching listeners creating the most magical moment of all that also  highlights the concept of the entire opera.

P.Q. Phan

Photo courtesy of IUJSoM

I want to make sure this opera is better or different than the existent chèo Thị Kính. Those Vietnamese familiar with the chèo version of the same title can be bias and more conservative and may have a more difficult time to open to new things. My challenge in this new opera is to write something so effective that they will embrace it as well thinking of it as an addition, or an evolution to something that already happened before.

Technically, I need to deal with text and form and to create continuity for the entire opera. I have to constantly struggle to find an approach for the opera: should it be art for art’s sake or a functional opera. When it comes to an opera, it’s always a functional event and my responsibility is to entertain anyone who likes music, regardless of how much they know music. When you do such a thing, you have to write the kind of music that is more approachable – meaning under the eyes of other composers, the music is not innovative enough. However, innovation in my opera is not so much focusing on the technique but on the meaning of the opera. I write songs, arias to reflect gender, social classes, age, or education. Being willing to not concentrate so much on technique but on the meaning of the opera instead is in itself innovative.

Music is complex and interesting in the current time. When you please the general audience, you tend not to please the music experts. And vice versa. For this opera, I need to create the balance: on the surface, the music is attractive, easy to understand; deep underneath, it is something extremely substantial with incredible techniques that somehow musical experts can be pleased as well.

What was your emotional journey like writing this opera?

The writing itself is pure joy. There is no agony at all. To sit there and create something considered a musical luxury or the luxurious journey in music making is sheer joy, a privilege that a lot of people don’t have, something that makes you feel good about yourself, something that makes you feel enlightened – and of course when you feel like that, the music is like that as well.

There is no one moment that is considered to be hard labor. It is incredible efforts for sure, but it is not something you agonize about, instead something you cannot wait to work on. Occasionally, I need to take a moment to see how I should approach an idea – that is sheer joy as well, to figure out how to do it.

How did you feel when you finished the opera?

I can say when I came to the last measure I was extremely happy knowing that I was about done. But immediately after the last note, it was incredibly empty. Almost like giving birth. You wait for nine months, when the baby is out, you are so happy with it. Then you realize the journey for the baby to arrive is done, now you have to get ready for the new journey.

The process of doing things is pure joy. That is why people are doing it, otherwise they don’t do it. It is cliché to say but every single note I put down is the labor of love. Therefore, the moment between journeys is when you feel the most empty. It is a syndrome most composers or artists experience.

What did you do then?

You cope with that. Look for the next journey. As we are talking, I have already finished the double concertante for violin and piano for chamber orchestra. Now it is going to be the Vietnamese requiem. Currently, the production of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is undergoing. This is a new process as well.

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

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