—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —–
First, a note: The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is an opera, not a musical. One fascinating thing about opera singers is that they don’t use microphone the way singers in musicals do. What you hear in an opera is the opera singers’ very own true voice projecting over the orchestra to reach the end of the hall. Opera singers must be able to read music, and their music is a hundred times more complicated. AND, it is an insult to call an opera singer by any other name but opera singer. There are many more differences between these two forms of theater, opera and musical, you could look up if you are interested in the subject. Now back to the review of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính.
The whole January and the first week of February, I attended dozens of hours of rehearsals with the orchestra, with the chorus, with staging, all four dress rehearsals, all four performances on February 7, 8, 14 and 15, and took thousands of pictures. Is it possible for me to be objective somewhat about The Tale of Lady Thị Kính? Yes, it is. With facts and some time to reflect, I am ready to share the following thoughts.
Costumes, set, music
The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is about a transcendental journey of a young fair lady to her Buddhahood. Kicked out of her in-law house because they thought she tried to kill her husband, Thị Kính disguises herself as a man to enter monkhood. At the temple, pursued by a beautiful young girl and later accused of getting her pregnant, Thị Kính, now Tiểu Kính Tâm, once again is kicked out of her/his shelter. He decides to accept the sins of others to grant them a new life by taking in Thị Mầu’s baby and goes to the marketplace to beg for food to raise the boy. Tiểu Kính Tâm later dies of exhaustion and starvation. Admiring Thị Kính’s self-sacrifice, the Buddha declares her Phật Quan Âm Thị Kính (Our Benevolent Buddha Thị Kính). The emotional force of this story leads me to thinking about people like Mother Teresa as the reference emerges quite naturally; Jesus, even. The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is indeed a universal story about love, compassion and selflessness, set in the 10th century Vietnam. It is not an overstatement for me at this point to say that these three words – love, compassion and selflessness – are what the audience felt after they experienced The Tale of Lady Thị Kính. The most common comments I have heard from them are “amazing,” “moving,” and “touching.”
Standing ovation, for a new opera, for all four performances of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is a red stamp of approval no one can deny. Well, in some places, blue, purple, or black stamp works in the same way. Kudos to composer and librettist P.Q. Phan; conductor David Effron; stage director Vince Liotta and his artistic team: set designer Erhard Rom, costume designer Linda Pisano, lighting designer Todd Hensley; IU Opera Theater executive director Tim Stebbins and his production team: artists in the woodshop, the paint and properties shop, the costume shop; the two casts; and the electric team and the crew behind the curtains making everything work.
Vince Liotta stressed many times in interviews that recreating an anthropologically Vietnamese theater is the last thing he and his team would do, given also the modern music of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính by P.Q. Phan. Instead, they filtered things through their Western view to create the Vietnamese feelings that both people who know about Vietnamese culture and those who don’t could relate. This is a wise decision and approach. And they succeeded.
The result is a very modern and abstract stage setting to fit the general vision and also to reflect the predominantly Western music of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính. The use of very vivid colors such as pink, yellow, orange, green, gold to indicate time and space, and interesting textures, such as jute for the drops and bamboo for the sliding panels, together with the clean line design, provide a lot of space for imagination, on the basis of Vietnamese sensibility that is presented in the design details themselves. In terms of staging, the Vietnamese sensibility is further enhanced by the selected and symbolic use of movements and theater properties such as the fans, the umbrellas, the offerings, the Buddha statues, etc. The costumes contribute to the cultural differences in that the colors are the most vibrant anyone has ever seen in an opera, and so diverse in styles, befitting the universalism value of the opera. Then lighting accentuates all the textures and colors on stage at their best when an unconventional approach was used: one that is meant to show everything! – the traditional method is usually to hide different details of the set and to show only certain spots.
In The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, when each character appears, they shine in the light, with their unique movements, characterization, costume, and most of all, music – the first and last element that connects everything together. The audience appreciated Thị Kính‘s demure expressions, loved Thị Mầu‘s flirtatious movements, laughed at Nô’s silly agility as a servant, feared Sùng Bà‘s ferocious mother-in-law threatening behavior, beamed at Sùng Ông’s drunk walking and burps, and so on. Having had a chance to witness them work and talk to them, I could tell you that every single member of the two casts loved their singing part. One, the music is beautiful. Two, everyone has a chance to sing who they are and showcase their voice. In other words, each character has their own rhymes and rhythms, literally, to sing. For instance, Nô sings jagged lines as a servant; Thị Kính weaves a thoughtful, proper and transcending nest of arias; Thiện Sĩ embellishes arrogant, naïve melodies; Vợ Mõ boats her wicked wit; Thị Mầu soars with songs that seem to come off the top of her head; while her four friends chant the mesmerizing Nam Mô A Di Đà Phật, provoking at times, sacred others.
The orchestration is breathtaking, as many people described in their responses. When you listen to the music, sometimes you see a single flower, sometimes a garden full of flowers; you feel the sadness, the happiness, the ugliness, the irony of the human souls; you see the thin and thick space; you see light and darkness in the air; you feel textures. ‘Colorful’ is one exact word that comes to mind that makes sense to you. You suddenly understand what musicians mean when they say, “The music is very colorful!” For one thing, the music of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is very colorful. And mesmerizing at the same time, the more attention you give to it. Composer P.Q. Phan intended to create for The Tale of Lady Thị Kính the type of music that is entertaining on the surface for the general audience, and sophisticated underneath for academic music experts. He stays true to his statement.
During the first week of the premiere, many people came and told us they would come to see the opera the second time. And they did. After the first week world premiere, I have been collecting responses about the opera from anyone who is willing to share (and will post more here.) The unanimous agreement is that the set and costumes are stunning, the acting of each character amazing, and the music beautiful. Among the responses are those from 200 Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans from out of town who drove or flew to Bloomington just for the show and those who watched it online. Don’t forget that most Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans who experienced The Tale of Lady Thị Kính are already familiar with the characters in this popular ancient folk story. They know who Thị Mầu or Vợ Mõ is, what they look like and are supposed to act like. For the Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans to not feel alienated but, on the reverse, feel quite endearing on listening and watching Thị Kính, Thị Mầu, Vợ Mõ, etc. performed by Americans and for the non-Vietnamese to be truly touched by the story and the performance is already an immense cross-cultural success for the opera.
Composer P.Q. Phan outdid himself as the librettist for The Tale of Lady Thị Kính in an outstanding endeavor translating and reconstructing the original script. It takes him 25 years to do research and to think about this opera project before he was totally confident he could bring it to life. Needless to say, there are layers of meanings in the libretto that require explanation for many of the audience to really appreciate the opera and Vietnamese culture at a deeper level, which is normal for a new opera. Yet, at the performances and in the email responses, many Americans as well as Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans commented on the sophistication of the libretto. They even wanted to buy a copy of it. I don’t think anyone is happier than the librettist himself, PQ Phan, to hear such words from the audience. It means the essence of Vietnamese culture in The Tale of Lady Thị Kính that Phan strives to bring to life is transcending.
Sporadically, as I try to pick my brain, the sophisticated satirical sections in The Tale of Lady Thị Kính appear in mind as some cultural nuances in layers that I can keep peeling. Each character, except Thị Kính, is both comical and serious at the same time. Each character, except Thị Kính, mocks themselves to mock society. This is one way the witty peasant authors of this thousand year-old folk lore had fun in their own way. That is how The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is created to be – a satirical dramatic work.
I was happy to see that the satire is not lost to the audience: many responses I have received praised the comical part of the opera as balancing the drama in it, and many audience members including children simply enjoyed it. This is exactly one intended function of the humor in The Tale of Lady Thị Kính: to find a way to connect to the audience, to entertain and to relax them.
It could be disappointing for you to hear this, but I have no negative comments on The Tale of Lady Thị Kính. Right this moment, as VietFace TV is broadcasting their multi-part documentary about the making of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính at IU Opera over the course of late February to early March, more and more audience have emailed PQ Phan and me to express their interest in the opera. Personally, by now I have memorized by heart the whole opera and can sing along with anyone. Who wants to join me?
* Watch the live recordings of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính: Available are performances of cast 1 on February 7, 2014 and cast 2 on February 14, 2014.
The Vietnamese version of this article has been printed and published online by the Viễn Đông Daily News. Read my online Vietnamese version.