In the shadows

Original Vietnamese opera must compete with international favourites for the relatively few opera lovers in the country.

By Story: LE DIEM on October 17,2017 02:29 PM

In the shadows

Photos: VNOB

It’s not always the case that all seats on all three levels of the Hanoi Opera House are packed for a Vietnamese performance, but it was for ‘La Do’ (Red Leaf), the first big local opera for some time. Prolonged applause rang out when the performance ended, with many in the audience seeking photos with the perfomers while others simply lingered to soak up some more of the atmosphere. Imported from the West, opera and ballet in Vietnam has struggled over the years but progress is being made. 


Planned since 2013, La Do aimed to promote opera and remind people of the difficult but proud history of the American War. The opera is based on the true story of eight people, who volunteered to transport supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the strategic supply route linking the north and the south, through jungle and mountains with trees that sprout red leaves. They were all buried when a bomb fell on a cave in the central province of Quang Binh where they were taking cover. The cave is now called ‘Eight Lady Cave’, to commemorate the mostly women who lived in the cave and is recognised as a national historical relic.

Preparations for La Do were completed last year and it was performed for the first time. Under the instruction of musician Do Hong Quan, who studied music and concert in Russia, the opera tells the lively story of the eight men and women, who hailed from different places but came together and shared a similar devotion to their country, paying the ultimate price in the end. All is told by music, singing, acting and dance, as in a typical Western opera. But its Vietnamese soul is clear to see in the story and the folk songs, in particular the song entitled La Do, which was already well known.

According to Mr Pham Anh Phuong, Director of the Vietnam National Opera and Ballet (VNOB), La Do received a lot of good feedback as it was a familiar story and not too difficult for Vietnamese people to hear and watch compared to international operas, which remain new to them. The opera was therefore performed again this year and is to be performed in the years to come.

The local audience had been waiting for many years for a sophisticated opera like La Do. Opera first appeared in Vietnam in the 1960s, after the VNOB was founded in Hanoi in 1959, focusing on concerts, opera and ballet. In the beginning, well-known international operas were performed by local artists, but only in 1965 was the first Vietnamese opera performed, called ‘Co Sao’ (Miss Sao), a product of musician Do Nhuan, the father of musician Do Hong Quan.

Although this ‘new’ art form was warmly welcomed by local audiences, it went on hiatus due to the war. Only in the 1980s did people begin to pay attention once more. Since then, VNOB has worked with the cultural centres of countries famous for opera, such as France, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden, to bring more masterpieces to the country. This helped Vietnam learn how to stage an opera more professionally, and since 1990, modern dance has been also performed along with traditional dance. VNOB’s model was then taken to HCMC.

While it became more popular, there was still no professional opera training in the country, which explains why most performances were a re-staging of famous operas, according to Phuong. Most of the artists at VNOB were students of the Vietnam National Academy of Music, where they were trained in music and voice but with a focus on modern music, not opera. There were also no official classes for all types of singing, acting and dancing, which are required for an opera performer. The VNOB could therefore only recruit those who met the requirements in voice, and they would have to learn other skills from experienced artists.

There is also an absence of general arts education in Vietnam, which is another factor in the slow development of opera in the country. ‘Westerners hear opera music from when they are a child, at schools or at church, and so are familiar with it,’ said Phuong. ‘The education system in Vietnam focuses more on other subjects, not the arts. There are some classes in painting and singing but only at the primary school level. Students study these more for fun than to quench their passion.’

When people then grow up, the arts remain in the background as they are too busy working and earning a living. Only when they have some free time or want a break do they think about the arts. So, there is no tradition of going to a concert or the opera in Vietnam and the number of people willing to spend VND1 million ($44) on a ticket is still small, according to Phuong.

In the shadows


Under the circumstances, creating a new opera involves a lot of work. It takes a few months to select the artists and then rehearse. The cost is also an issue. La Do cost VND2 billion ($88,000) to stage, which fortunately came from the government. Meanwhile, the total investment for VNOB performances each year is about VND4 billion ($176,000), so not many large-scale operas can be staged. ‘It’s a fact of life for the arts everywhere, not only in Vietnam,’ Phuong said. ‘But in other countries, culture and arts centres receive about 65% of their budget from sponsors who love the arts. In Vietnam, there are almost no such sponsors, except for the government. If we were to receive VND10-15 billion ($440,000-660,000) a year, I’m sure we could create a lot more performances.’

Another difficulty for opera and ballet in Vietnam is that audiences are hesitant to support new pieces. In addition to well-known pieces like Co Sao and La Do, other Vietnamese opera and ballet to have been staged include Tam Cam Sisters, Miss Su, ‘Ben bo Krong Pa’ (On the Banks of the Krong Pa), ‘Nguoi tac tuong’ (The Sculptor), Miss Vo Thi Sau, and, recently, ‘Moi tinh thanh co’ (Love Story in the Ancient Citadel). Despite being an imported art form, Vietnamese opera has its own national character, Phuong added. Stories retell the country’s history, wars, culture, and people, with Vietnamese folk melodies, costumes, and folk dances added. Moi tinh thanh co, which was staged by French director Bertrand d’At and performed by Vietnamese artists, is based on a legend from Vietnam’s earliest days, when My Chau, a princess of the Au Lac Kingdom, married Trong Thuy, a prince of a rival northern kingdom, and revealed her father’s secret weapon. The northern kingdom then defeated the Au Lac Kingdom, and the couple committed suicide because of guilt but also love. ‘A foreign opera lover told me it was stunning,’ Phuong said. ‘They didn’t expect that Vietnam could stage such an impressive opera, with an interesting storyline and beautiful sets, singing and dancing. Although operas like Moi tinh thanh co received a positive response from opera experts and foreigners, just a small number of tickets were sold, while famous operas and ballets such as Carmen, Madame Butterfly, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker always see good ticket sales. It makes our efforts to create and promote Vietnamese opera quite difficult.’

Despite the challenges, though, the VNOB and the government continue to try and popularise the art form, though it clearly takes time.

VNOB stages at least one show each month at the Hanoi Opera House, involving concert, ballet, and opera. ‘Vietnamese become bored easily with only one type of performance that may run for a few hours,’ Phuong said. ‘So, we try to offer them a diverse show so they feel they got their money’s worth.’

The government recently approved a project to build Hanoi Lotus, a floating theatre, which will have a capacity of 2,000 seats and be within an entertainment area that includes an ice-skating rink, cinemas, and restaurants, capable of catering to 25,000 local people and tourists. It will be equipped with the latest facilities and be the city’s largest and most modern theatre, and is expected to be completed at the end of 2018 and opened in 2019. ‘It’s a good sign,’ Phuong believes. ‘Other countries in the region like North Korea and even Kazakhstan invested in their opera and theatre a long time ago and stage quality performances. I hope that Vietnam will put this new theatre to good use for a long time.’

He also expects that arts in general and opera and ballet in particular will be given more attention and focus at school, to teach the next generation about culture and arts and preserve the country’s intangible values. ‘In the context of the world becoming more open and “flat”, we must have our own character,’ he said. ‘In many fields, we fall behind more developed countries so we must have our own colour to prosper.’

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