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Vietnamese Opera's Revival in California Little Saigon (January 06, 2004)

Vietnamese Opera
“…Oh Duong Le! Duong Le Oh, I remember once upon a time, you and I were buddies, you would eat my rice, drink from my bowl, winter came I would give you tiger leather coat, silks and even a private room …”

Tooink, toink, toink … Bar notes sprung out from Huynh Chau’s electric guitar, sweetly connecting the “xuong xe” (low note) from the middle-aged guest singer on the corner stage. Applause exploded from the restaurant patrons. Through the thick smoke, again in a chorus they lifted the glasses and yelled “do” (“let’s drink”).

When Truong Giang finished off the “Luu Binh Duong Le” number, he smilingly passed the mike to another patron. Like everyone else at “Pho Hoa An” restaurant tonight, he often came here to drink, to be merry with his friends, and to sing and listen to “Vong Co” – Vietnamese opera.

In recent years, traditional Vietnamese opera has been exploding in the Little Saigon (Orange County, California). Similar back home, Vong Co is being revived and adapted to the new environment to overcome the modern difficulties so that its addictive melody can continue to touch the hearts of the many fans. Vong Co and songs like “Nam Xuan, Nai Ai, Phuong Hoang, Ly Con Sao,” … is echoing and creating a friendly atmosphere at nightclubs and restaurants, where the guests could perform in the weekend evenings. In addition to theater performances organized by a number of playwrights, and several music studios have also caught the fan’s pulse and produced CDs and tapes.

Thanks to Radio Programs

“ I think the popularity of opera has been particularly strong in the last few years in part due to radio opera programs like the Little Saigon Radio’s weekly “Thanh Am Triu Men” (“The soothing sound”) program. “Among the newly arrived immigrants, there are many opera fans who love to perform,” observed musician Chi Tam who has 40 years of opera stage performance.

“Thanh Am Triu Men”, which has been broadcasting on every Wednesday afternoons since 1995, is a creation of the late musician Viet Hung and it is being continued by Ngoc Nuoi with regular contributions from Tam Tri, Dung Thanh Lam, and Chi Tam. The program not only plays these musicians’ solos and full orchestras but also broadcasts live singings from the audience who called in.

Responding to the fans’ popularity demand, restaurant “Pho Hoa Anh” has a regular music band to accommodate guests with the sudden urge to belch out Vong Co on stage. In love with Vong Co since he was little, when Dung opened the restaurant he simultaneously created the “Ca co nhac” (“opera singing”) programs in the weekends and also became a sponsor of the overseas Association of Traditional Music of Southern Vietnam. The place was also the practice studio for contestants of the association’s recent “Opera Singing Competition 2001”. Musicians Huynh Chau and Hong Hanh, who regularly oversee the restaurant’s programs, also hold opera classes at the same venue. “We usually have about 12 students, age ranges from 12 to 60,” said Huynh Chau. “We only charge nominal fees. Once learned, the students keep coming back to sing.”

To the Vietnamese opera professionals, their stages are the big restaurants. Based on “Thanh Am Triu Men” program, musician Chi Tam hatched the idea of organizing live Vong Co performances. Although his “Nhom San Khau Van Lang,” (“Van Lang Theater Troupe”) – which he led with his partner Chi Tuan – is not only game in town but they have been the most consistent. Since last April, the group has performed six engagements. Evening programs of “Hoa Ca Co Nhac” (“Opera Orchestra”) at Seafood Paracel restaurant have been attracting nearly 450 fans, who tightly filling up all the seats.

“Hoa Ca Co Nhac is like a combination platter,” analogized musician Linh Tuan, a graduate of the Saigon Theater School. The program carries chapters of famous plays from the pre-1975 period (Vietnam war ended in 1975) like “Luc Van Tien – Kieu Nguyet Nga”, “Tam Long Cua Bien”, “Tieng Hac Trong Trang,” “Con Gai Chi Hang” and other numbers like comedy, classical-pop, and magic. The stars are Lu Lien, Thanh Duoc, Phuong Lien, or Quang Minh, Hong Dao, Van Son, Bao Lien, etc…

Theaters yet well known

Crowded audience and not money-losing programs are achievements thus far but performing at restaurants are not the ideal venues for these artists. Linh Tuan said: “We have always wanted to perform at a real theater, but Vietnamese opera hasn’t reached the required critical mass to afford sophisticated programs on stage.” Yen Lang, composer of more than 30 plays, observed: “May be we overseas Vietnamese don’t have enough time so enjoying opera at restaurants has become a family activity – dining, conversing… Watching opera at theaters is not yet a habit.”

Thrice composer Yen Lang tested the market with plays such as “Co Gai Viet” and “Nguoi Chinh Binh My” (written by Thai Quoc Nam with Yen Lang directed) and two of his own “Dem Lanh Chua Hoang” and Nang Thu Ve Ngo Truc.” Unfortunately, these performances did not attract large audience to justify the efforts and investment in equipments for sound, staging, lighting, and costumes, which have dramatically improved since their first engagement.

In Vietnam, an opera troupe could perform a play for many months. Whereas here the many months of practice will be culminated into only one evening and afterward pack up. Although struggling on the commercial side, composer Yen Long still dreams of putting together a theater play about life of the overseas Vietnamese. “Vietnamese opera is an art of combining acting, script, sounds, lighting, and costumes,” said Yen Lang. “So only at real theaters that you could manifest all the elements of this art.”

Young Faces

However, to the younger musicians, they believe to have the opportunity to perform is already a satisfaction. New generation opera singers like Dan Phuong, Minh Hung, Lam Trieu, and Quoc Nam are happy to sing anywhere. Two years ago, Dan Phuong, an accounting graduate from Cal State Long Beach and is now working in real estate, got encouragement from family and friends and participated in the Opera Singing Competition sponsored by the Go Cong Friendship Association. She won second place (Minh Hung grabbed the first prize). Currently Dan Phuong and Minh Hung are racing to finish rehearsing “Dua Con Hoang Dang,” a new play from composer Thai Quoc Nam with plan to debut by next April. This will be the first-ever Vietnamese opera based on a story of Jesus.

Young opera singers often confide that with their daily studies and heavy workloads, they could only have one or two hours on front of the mirrors. Only on the weekends that they could get together and merge their parts.

“I work at a machine shop so I don’t have much time,” said Minh Hung. “May be I am blessed by the ancestors because I don’t often forget the plays.” Since winning the grand prize, Minh Hung has participated in a number of plays and had opportunities to learn new roles. Lam Trieu, on the other hand, is more interested in acting. Each day after work, he would stand on front of the mirror and rehearse different expressions like happy, sad, anger, tormented… In return, he has demonstrated his talents in roles such as comedians in “Co Gai Viet,” “Nguoi Chien Binh My,” and “Gia Me Luat,” and an authority figure in “Nang Thu Ve Ngo Truc.” Although busy with his studies at UCI, Quoc Nam has been a regular in a number of programs with songs composed by Van Huong.

Dang Phuong, Minh Hung, Lam Trieu, and Quoc Nam are the new faces in the opera scene. According to Nganh Mai, head of the overseas Association of Traditional Music of Southern Vietnam, the 2001 opera competition (“Tuyen Lua Ca Si Co Nhac 2001”) was created to target the young audience.

“It was the first competition organized by the Association so the awareness was not well known. However in our next event I hope the media would help with the publicity to foster the trend further,” said Nganh Mai.

Youth audience also cries

“The popularity of Vietnamese opera music is gaining overseas,” said Hoang Nguyen, president of Bien Tinh center. “I have seen youths looking for opera music CDs to buy.” According to Hoang, this young audience tends to search for well known pre-75 opera CDs – may be it is due to recommendation from their parents – or to select Manh Quynh and Phi Nhung. These twos came from pop music but they sing hybrid opera-pop music in the Thuy Nga Paris video productions.

Mr. To Van Lai, president of Thuy Nga Entertainment, said sales for their first two opera music videos “Luong Son Ba, Chuc Anh Dai” and “Than Nu Dang Ngu Linh Ky,” in the US and France were high. When musician Thanh Duoc immigrated to then West Germany in 1984, Thuy Nga invited him to Paris to videotape the play “Khi Hoa Anh Dao No.” “But this video production failed financially,” Lai said. “I walked under the New York’s cold sky and wanted to cry to fill barrels of ice water. At this time, the audience was mesmerized with the Kung-Fu fantasy serial videos of ‘Anh Hung Xa Dieu, Co Gai Do Long …, so nobody was interested in Vong Co!”

At the end of 1999, after a chapter of “Tuyet Tinh Ca” starring Thanh Duoc and Phuong Lien was produced on video, To Van Lai then rediscovered that the opera fans are still there. The sales success of the distribution brought a number of fans to Thanh Duoc’s restaurant to personally meet the “District 9 cop” (his role in “Tuyet Tinh Ca”). Thanh Duoc recounted: “I asked these young people whether they have actually watched opera. They said that when seeing their parents cried over opera shows, they became curious and when they watched … they too cried.”

Audience selecting plays

Opera productions have become increasingly diverse but not well developed commercially. An average ticket price for a “Hoa Ca Co Nhac”, or complete orchestra show, is $35 with VIP at $40 to cover the basic costs for sound, stage, and meals. “Singers don’t get much money. We perform because we love the opera,” singer Linh Tuan said. Tickets for a non full-orchestra opera at theater are priced from $20 to $30, cheaper than most pop music programs (typically ranging from $30 to $75). Costumes are brought from Vietnam so these are not so expensive.

With so many entertainment options, the audience has begun to demand higher quality. Many want to see new plays. “The audience now wants to see full, complete plays,” musician Chi Tam said. At their seventh “Hoa Ca Co Nhac” scheduled for March, the San Khau Van Lang troupe will perform a complete play “Dua Con Bat Dac Di,” composed by Chi Tam and adapted from “Ach Giua Dang,” a play of La Thoai Tan (this play was performed in Paris once in 1981).

Although the audience number is climbing, producing new performers in this environment is not easy. “In Vietnam, each musician in a musical troupe must constantly practice. After each performance they would reflect for improvement,” composer Yen Lang said. “Here you have to try really hard to have a couple of performances and then grind for a long time before you can put together a show.” Artists like Chi Tam, Linh Tuan, and Yen Lang are planning to organize classes to teach singing, dancing, analyzing plays, ..etc, with the aim to produce a new generation of performers.

However, from the fans to the opera professionals, everyone is optimistic about the future of Vietnamese Vong Co overseas.

“If you lose Vong Co, you’d lose the South. I believe the Vietnamese opera here will not die,” said Thanh Duoc, whose nicked-name is the “King without Throne” of opera. “The youth have opera music in their blood. It only needs to be stirred up.”

Reprinted from NCM


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