Vietnamese traditional opera and some of its representations in the 21st century


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In celebration of the 71st Anniversary of the National Day of S.R. Vietnam, marked on 9th September 2016 at the Embassy of S.R. Vietnam in Sofia

I first came in touch with the musical culture of Vietnam back in 2004, when I paid a guest visit to the capital Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. I was invited to visit Ho Chi Minh City two more times during the next two years. My visits each lasted for about a month, but every time I visited the country, I would enjoy new experiences, as if I was “discovering” new and different layers of the mindset of the Vietnamese with whom I worked and communicated, and I was beginning to know better the Vietnamese culture. In 2006, I crossed paths with a Vietnamese performer of traditional opera and folklore. She was introduced to me as a person, who had dedicated her life to the mission to cherish and pass to the future generations the traditions of her country. During our creative meetings, she was so kind as to share with me a small part of her practical knowledge about the major folklore regions in Vietnam, to sing for me typical fragments of the two types of Vietnamese traditional opera – hát chèo and t tuồng. Possibly, in the course of our communication, she too felt close to Bulgarian culture, because during our last meeting she gave me as a present her own stage costume, which she had used for a long time in the performance of stock characters in the traditional opera – hát chèo.


hát chèo

Data about the musical, dance, and theatrical culture on the territory of Vietnam go back to the Bronze Era (Đông Sơn), to which the gongs uncovered during archaeological excavations belong (discovered since 1893 on the territory of present day Northern Vietnam). The time when the relics were made most probably coincides with the heyday of this Era – between 6th and 1st century BC, whereas researchers think that the discovered gongs may possibly even date back to earlier times. The musical instruments (which undoubtedly also represent ritual artifacts) give evidence of the development of music in these lands not only because of their existence, but also due to the fact that they produce a sound with a specific pitch – i.e. they were subject to tuning.   Figures of musicians playing the drums were depicted to stand in circle around the center. Figures of dancing people were also depicted, which, in turn, is associated with musical and dance rituals on the territory of present day Vietnam. The dancing figures were portrayed in energetic poses; their costumes included exuberant head decorations and long robes of thick materials. Quite often, these figures handled weapons (spears, long rods, axes).  These images in turn evoke parallels with the warrior characters in the traditional Vietnamese opera and the typical distinction in the music and drama culture of the Far East between the two types of dance – military dance (in Vietnam – Va Vu) and civil dance (Van Vu). Bronze gongs played part in opera performances as well. Their sound contributed to the full-bodied construction of the images of high dignitaries.  Possibly, this connection may be due to the circumstance that only the highest dignitaries could afford to own such instrument, as its weight often exceeds 100 kg of bronze. The opera opening could also be accompanied by the sound of this magnificent musical instrument, thus aiming to attract the audience to the opera stage.

The traditional hát chèo opera, typical for Northern Vietnam, most probably dates back to the 1st century AD, while the mature genre is referred to the 11th century, when reports of opera plotlines first emerged.  The tradition had been zealously kept alive, handed down from one generation to the next – from father to son, from grandfather to grandson, etc. Wealthier families, who were patrons of the tradition, would even take care of more than one youth, who were not their kin, only to make sure there would be perpetuators of this art. Although there is evidence of the use of musical notation, traditional opera was passed primarily “by word of mouth” – a typical feature of folklore, which lies at the foundation of the hát chèo genre.

The main instruments in the instrumental ensemble are: the moon lute đàn nguyệt, the two-string fiddle đàn nhị, the beautiful three-stringed instrument đàn tam with body covered by a snake skin, 36-string zither thập lục, the lute with a body made of a pear-shaped gourd đàn tỳ , bamboo flutes o trúc and sáo, a “rice drum” trống m, cymbals, wood blocks, etc.   

The genre is characterized by several groups of stock characters: a comic character – hề, an old man – o, an old woman – mụ, a young woman – đào and a young man – kép.

The buffoon or the comic character hề plays key role in the genre. The word hề also means: important, significant; loud laughter. Often the buffoon is not the protagonist yet plays an inseparable part of the plot of action and the very performance of traditional operas from Northern Vietnam. During the same performance, the comic characters are typically more than one. The performances were usually staged outdoors, most frequently in rural areas, located along the Red River Delta. The actors played drums to mark the opening of the performance. Then two buffoons performed their act to attract more viewers. The comic characters commented the action onstage, cheered up the audience after episodes filled with drama, sometimes were even sarcastic (in line with the ideal for attaining a better society).

The same actor might play the role of more than one character. The instrument players in the company were also prepared to give a convincing performance of short parts. In this way, the theater companies achieved compactness and versatility in presenting their art successfully while also travelling – at various festivals, in front of different audiences.

Along with the stock characters, an important part in the plot is played by the choir (dàn đế), which takes part in the highlights of the storyline unfolding onstage.

The plot lines, also called “the body of the play” (thân trò) are linear and simple, free from any complicated internal references.

Nowadays, performances in this traditional genre are staged also by professional musicians and actors at the National Theater for hát chèo founded in Hanoi in the second half of 20th century. The state demonstrated further support by setting up a Committee for Chèo Studies in 1957.

The traditional t tuồng opera, typical of Southern Vietnam and originating from the musical and theatrical practices of the Vietnamese aristocracy, acquired the characteristics of a representative genre in the 12th century.  Its most attractive features are the costumes of exquisite fabrics, richly decorated with hand-made embroidery, and the models of face paint carrying rich symbolism. The early t tuồng performances were played at specially designed stages indoors, yet over time, the opera of Southern Vietnam evolved into an outdoors event and the circle of performers broadened to include not only aristocrats. A national professional theater was established in Hanoi for this type of traditional opera as well enjoying wide popularity even in 2015.


hát tuồng

The two professional institutions for traditional opera in Hanoi hold trainings and educate the young audience by organizing visits of primary and secondary Vietnamese schools.

A project mottoed From Theater to School was launched in 2000 aiming to scout and train future young stars of the traditional opera.  The project has duration of three to five months. Its target groups are the students from the primary and secondary schools.  Professional actors teach t tuồng in Hanoi and Nha Trang, while hát chèo is studied in the province of Nam Dinh. The project takes place in 3 stages: work groups of professional actors and partner organizations are set up during the first stage to establish the connection between the actors and the students. The second stage involves the staging of 23 performances aiming to attract an audience of more than 5000 viewers – from the schools and the community.  The last stage transforms art clubs into evening schools targeted at groups of 15 students each. The competition for the selection of the most distinguished students is “fierce”, as the choice is made among 200 to 300 candidates. Each of these evening schools receives additional consultation by experts, stage costumes, stage makeup, props, and lighting. Subsequently, each of the clubs gives a series of successful performances attractive to the audience. Several future stars are born.

A modern genre named cải lương came to life in 1920, based on hát tuồng. The genre experiences the influence of various musical styles and is very close to the Vietnamese popular music. The instrumental ensembles are replaced by studio recordings, standing out for their modern orchestrations and arrangements. The costumes and stage makeup have preserved the stylized elements of the traditional genre hát tuồng, yet these are also notably modern.  The ambition apparently is to create a new genre, which stands closer to the interests of the younger generation. The result is a genre, which is based on Vietnamese traditions, yet its sound and vision strongly suggest genres (such as musical, musical film, etc.) related to the American and European musical and theatrical culture, television and the movies. The modern ideas and approaches of cải lương have introduced this genre into TV academies and other TV reality formats.  I had the opportunity to watch “live” the finale of one such production in Ho Chi Minh City in 2006 (I wrote an article back then dedicated to the genre).

Gradually, traditional genres have also started to make their way into TV formats. One such example is the participation of Nguyễn Đức Vĩnh, a performer of permanent female roles đào in the traditional hát chèo opera, in the Vietnam’s Got Talent format of 2014. Curiously enough, the young and extremely talented performer is a boy – i.e. the connection to the tradition is even more tangible transferred into modern times.

During my visit in Vietnam, I have been pleasantly surprised by the daily broadcasts of full-length Vietnamese opera in the genres:  hát tuồng, hát chèo, cải lương, etc. This strategy aims to make the Vietnamese opera an integral part of the daily life of the Vietnamese.  TV academies and other formats enjoying the interest of wide audience of viewers also find their place as a modern way of drawing interest to these genres. TV broadcasts of operas are offered along with subtitles which run parallel in several languages (in the Latin and Cyrillic alphabet, in hieroglyphs, etc.).  The professional musical theaters also provide this option to the viewers, who are not well-familiar with the Vietnamese language. It is very much clear that this is a very well-tailored cultural strategy aiming to cherish a precious part of Vietnamese cultural legacy and attract new audience to it, as well as to create conditions for a full-fledged communication with other arts and cultures[1].

[1] This text has been significantly amended and supplemented based on a report with multimedia presentation within the frames of the forum The Unexpected Vietnam (Images, Encounters, Rediscovery) held on 7 April 2015 at the Center for Eastern Languages and Cultures with the Sofia University, organized with the participation of the Institute for Art Studies – BAS with the support of the Embassy of S.R.Vietnam in Sofia.

References: Tzenova, Miglena. “Vietnamese Traditional Opera (Vong Ko)” Bulgarian Musicology (2007): 2, 201-2013; Brandon, James R. Theatre in Southeast Asia. Harvard University Press, 2009, 448 p.; Cầu, Hà Văn. Hề chèo. Ho Chi Minh: Nhà xuất bản, Năm xuất bản, 2005; Cầu, Hà Văn. Mấy vấn đề trong kịch bản chèo [Observations on the librettos for chèo]. Hà Nội: Văn hóa, 1977; Kalman, Bobbie. Vietnam: The Culture. Crabtree Publishing Company, 2001. 32 p.; McLeod, Mark W., and Thi Dieu Nguyen. Culture and Customs of Vietnam. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001, 198 p.; NSND Đinh Bằng Phi. Nhìn về sân khấu hát bội Nam Bộ [A glimpse into the staged traditional opera of Southern (Vietnam)]. H Chí Minh: Nhà xuất bản Văn Nghệ, 2005.

The transcriptions of Vietnamese words into the Bulgarian language have been consulted with Rayna Beneva, PhD, lecturer in Vietnamese language and culture at the Center for Eastern Languages and Cultures with the Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”.

Translated by Miglena Tzenova-Nusheva

Vietnamese traditional opera and some of its representations in the 21st century

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