Journey of an Opera (14) – Cultural Expectations From Both Sides

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Creation Series

Hanh trinh-14

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is nothing short of P.Q. Phan’s “baby.” Much as he wishes for its magnificent production and reception, the matters are pretty much out of his hands. Yet a composer and librettist he is, well wishes are what he has to share, here in way of a conclusion to The Creation Series.

The 90-10 formula

To approach a cross-cultural work such as The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, the production team as well as the Vietnamese audience tend to be concerned about the question of correct and incorrect cultural interpretations. Most Americans in general have little knowledge of Vietnamese culture. They tend to think, however, that they may be more familiar with Chinese culture. They may even think that Asian countries have many things in common with Chinese culture making the “correct interpretations” to be ones that are Chinese-like.

The general Vietnamese audience, on the other hand, may not be able to agree on any one-and-only Vietnamese representation because of the unfortunately long history of interaction between the two countries and cultures. For anyone who dares to try, the clarification of a correct interpretation of authentic Vietnamese culture to both American and Vietnamese audience almost seems like hitting the brick wall.

For his two cents, PQ Phan thinks that often portraying something correctly is important but in this case far less important than not portraying something incorrectly. In other words, getting rid of the incorrect interpretation of Vietnamese culture is more important than focusing on portraying things correctly. In light of this, if the goal is 100% on cultural presentation, and we can spend 90% on deleting or avoiding misrepresentation, and 10% on portraying something correctly, Phan considers that successful. In another episode, if you spend  50-50 on those efforts, the attempt could lead to an unsuccessful rendition.

For what it’s worth, Phan’s contribution to the production process, if any, would follow the 90-10 formula – e.g. assisting to delete all elements that appear to be obviously Chinese-like or Chinese-originated. His part will be done with this. Then come the audience with their own role to play.

Studying culture or living culture

Vietnamese people who wish The Tale of Lady Thị Kính to be a complete representation of Vietnamese culture are bearing a naïve desire. So are their American counterparts who believe that the story and performance of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính in and of itself should tell a complete tale about Vietnamese culture. There is no single work in the world that can do such a thing about any one culture. To have such an expectation is only destructive to the way people will perceive and enjoy cross-cultural works in general.

The best The Tale of Lady Thị Kính can do is to present some aspects of Vietnamese culture to get American audience acquainted with what is Vietnamese. And, to go against the strong tradition in western scientific research and studies that embed in people the belief that cultures could be understood through studies, it is worth a reminder that culture is something to be absorbed in your blood and not something to be understood. As long as you are an outsider studying it, you’re always an outsider looking in. The only way for people to understand culture is to accept it the way native people do living in it.

To enjoy The Tale of Lady Thị Kính

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is an American opera by a Vietnamese American composer, written in Western style music, for a grand orchestra force, based on a thousand-year old Vietnamese story, targeting American audience. Accepting culture as it is to have a full experience of the opera would mean the audience could come to the performance with an open mind ready to take what is happening on the stage. If people walk out of the theater with an essence of what Vietnamese culture or iconography is about, it will have been a big success and P.Q. Phan said he would celebrate it.

Among things about Vietnamese culture that Phan expects people to see, one of the most beautiful is its sincerity and simplicity in representation. While some culture may be indulged in luxury and ceremonies to impress others, Vietnamese culture is all about daily living. The Vietnamese do things because of who they are instead of going to great lengths to cover that.

As far as iconography is concerned, a glimpse at the traditional village flag will do. It shows that folk people appreciate what is called ‘clash colors.’ The flag is composed of a number of strange colors in a way that is not necessarily deemed well coordinated in the West. But that is what folk people do – they put all the colors together in a way that they think beautiful. This may not have a deep meaning to it, but is satisfying to their eyes. Bright colors, therefore, more than anything else, are the trademark of Vietnamese culture.

And we are definitely not talking about rich people’s culture. More often than not, people everywhere get wealthy through good fortune or good luck or commerce. There is no guarantee that they have an incredible understanding of the true meaning of their culture. Since they are wealthy, they need something to protect themselves and to reflect who they are, so they indulge in lavish ceremonies and materials. Armed with little knowledge of their true identity they tend to borrow other people’s identity and make it their own.

As a result, in the case of Việt Nam, Vietnamese vernacular culture is where people live true to their nature the most, and where one can hope to find more or less, hopefully more, unique characteristics of Vietnamese culture. This is the very place from which the story of Thị Kính originated – one that has been in existence for more than a thousand years and continues to gain unrelenting popularity.

Let’s hope that people everywhere are proud of and indulge in their folk culture, and that the audience will perceive Vietnamese culture as such on the premiere of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính.

The Vietnamese version of this article has been published by the Vien Dong Daily News.

–> Read the Vietnamese version

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