Born in the Mekong Delta nearly a hundred years ago, cai luong theatre has increasingly become popular because it suits modern tastes shaped by local tradition and outside influence.
About artists and audiences
One scorching afternoon in June, when most eyes were fixed on the soccer matches of World Cup 2002, I ignored the TV to visit Mr. Nhat Minh, director of the Hanoi Cai Luong Theatre Company. He was very proud that his company had survived the test of time and the changing taste of the audience, especially with the aggressive invasion of TV in people’s homes. Built in the 1930s, the company’s two theatres Chuong Vang (Golden Bell) Theatre at 72 Hang Bac Street and Dong Do (Eastern Capital) Theatre at 20 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street still stand in the old quarter of Hanoi where they have entertained generations of Hanoians with cai luong, a style of local opera born in southern Vietnam nearly a hundred years ago and influenced by European drama.
Nhat Minh’s family tradition is a good example of how cai luong has developed and will grow. He himself has pursued the cai luong career since 1958, when he was only twelve years old. His daughter Thanh Huong in her turn began singing cai luong tunes at the age of five, and received the title of “National Young Talented Art Star” at eighteen and, like her father, the title “Eminent Artist” at thirty. Thanh Huong is best known for her role of Thuy Kieu in Kieu, an opera adapted by Viet Dzung and Sy Tien from eighteenth-century poet Nguyen Du’s great narrative poem, The Tale of Kieu.
The art form has recently captured even the interest of European audiences. Nhat Minh recalled the company’s shows of Kieu at Carouge Theatre in Geneva in November 1995. At the beginning of each scene, the theatre presented a brief summary in French. Audiences sat attentively through the two-and-a-half-hour opera, moved at the heart-breaking plight of Kieu, a beautiful woman who sells herself to pay her father’s ransom and suffers great misery and shame. “Although most of the audience couldn’t understand a word of Vietnamese,” Nhat Minh told me, “they still enjoyed the performance because they could easily understand the characters’ thoughts and emotions from the way the performers sing, move and dance. Many people wept.”
“When I visited Geneva in 1998,” I said, “people still talked about your daughter Thanh Huong and her superb performance as Kieu. I know Western audiences are often difficult to please, so you must have been very pleased with your daughter.”
“Yes, I was. But other actors and actresses were very important, too,” Nhat Minh replied. “It was a complicated play. The thirty artists in the cast worked very hard to prepare for the tour. We all looked forward to the departure day. My only worry was the possibility of a financial loss for Carouge. It agreed to cover all our expenses, from air tickets to meals and accommodations in a four-star hotel. However, it turned out that they sold out the 700-seat theatre at 50 Swiss francs per ticket for every one of our fifteen shows.”
Nhat Minh paused and then added with a bit of sadness, “I hope we can have more opportunities to perform before large audiences abroad. If we have more money we can improve our marketing and advertising. At the moment few theatres in other countries know about us. Even many people in Hanoi have not heard of us, to say nothing of watching our performances; they do not know that Hanoi artists can also sing cai luong as well as those from the Mekong Delta.”
A theatre form born for the changing society
During a trip to Paris in 1998, I called on Vietnamese musicologist Prof. Tran Van Khe, former vice-president of UNESCO’s International Music Council. On learning that I wanted to research the history of cai luong, he gave me his book La musique vietnamienne traditionnelle (Les Presses Universitaires de la France, 1962).
According to Tran Van Khe, the first cai luong opera was performed on November 15, 1918 at the home of Pho Muoi Hai in Vung Liem in the southern province of Vinh Long. The piece presented characters from the narrative poem Luc Van Tien by Nguyen Dinh Chieu (1822-1888) in the form of ca ra bo, or singing (ca) accompanied by gestures (bo). The songs came from the popular music of the Mekong Delta and the gestures from hat bo (classical opera, or tuong). This experiment gradually developed into a separate art form. So, at one hundred years of age, cai luong is a young theatre form in comparison with the thousand-year-old cheo (popular opera) and eight-hundred-year-old tuong (classical opera).
It is said that the word cai luong appeared in the early 1920s. At that time, travelling hat bo troupes in southern Vietnam wanted to change the way they performed to satisfy the taste of a new audience recently exposed to Western influence. Artists in these troupes often sang the following lines as a slogan:
Cai cach hat ca theo tien bo
Luong truyen tuong tich sanh van minh
(Reform singing to be progressive,
Adapt stories to be civilised)
The name cai luong derives from the first word of each line, meaning “to reform in order to reflect a changing society.”
As the new genre developed, writers re-shaped Chinese stories from the tuong stage for cai luong productions, such as Phung Nghi Dinh (Three Kingdoms era) and The Trial of the King’s Concubine Bang (Xu an Bang quy phi—Southern Sung era). Make-up, costumes, and gestures became realistic rather than stylised. Melodies were adapted to a modern style. Cai luong troupes also staged stories from nom (Vietnamese old script) narrative poems such as The Tale of Kieu, Luc Van Tien, The Tale of Phuong Hoa, and The Tale of Pham Tai and Ngoc Hoa.
While cheo is performed in the open air of rural villages and tuong in royal buildings, cai luong found its home in enclosed theatres similar to those in the West. Cai luong scenery, costumes, and gestures reflect the influence of the Western realistic style. Scripts adapted from French authors include The Value of Honour (Gia tri danh du) from Le Cid by Pierre Corneille; Longing until Death (To vuong den thac) from La Dame aux Camellias by Alexandre Dumas, Jr.; and Princess Sy Van (Sy Van cong chua) from the medieval romance of Tristan and Isolde.
Cai luong music uses ly folk tunes of southern Vietnam, southern and central Vietnamese folk songs, royal ceremonial music, and other traditional music as its basis. The emergence of the vong co tunes composed by Cao Van Lau was an important milestone in cai luong’s development. Among the artists who quickly mastered the new style were Nam Phi, Phung Ha, Ba Du, Tam Danh, Nam Chau, and Ba Van. In the 1930s, Sy Tien, Tho An, Anh De, and Bach Hop led the introduction of cai luong to northern Vietnam. To Nhu Theatre (now Chuong Vang Theatre) and Kim Phung Theatre (now Dong Do Theatre) in Hanoi have been open to cai luong lovers since those days.
In the early years, cai luong resembled an addition of Chinese opera and classical French spoken drama, but cai luong scriptwriters and artists gradually created their own Vietnamese idiom, making the art closer to Vietnamese mentality. Cai luong has now spread throughout the country. Originally all cai luong troupes were based in Sai Gon, but there are now also eight cai luong companies in northern Vietnam: the Central Cai Luong Theatre Company, the Ha Noi Cai Luong Theatre Company, and provincial companies in Vinh Phuc, Quang Ninh, Ha Tay, Nam Dinh, Thai Binh, and Thanh Hoa. At a national festival in Ho Chi Minh City in 2000, the Hanoi troupe won a gold medal for its production of A Thang Long Scholar (Ke si Thang Long). Cai luong has found its place in the Red River Delta and the Ma River Delta, cradle of Vietnamese culture.
Some researchers attribute the fast growing popularity of cai luong to the ease with which directors can stage both historical and modern plots and characters. Two new cai luong operas, The White Lotus of the Tran Dynasty (Sen trang Dong A) and Sparkling Gems in the Land of the Magic Sword (Ngoc sang Dat kiem than), staged by the Hanoi Cai Luong Theatre Company, won golden medals at the 1995 National Performing Arts Festival in Hue. The former opera is of a historical nature, portraying the quiet sacrifice of Princess An Tu, who is as beautiful and pure as a white lotus. The latter, representing a modern theme, describes the early days of the war of resistance against the French re-invasion in December 1946. Tuong and cheo do not have this flexibility in switching between themes that cai luong does.
“Cai luong will survive the challenges of the new millennium,” Nhat Minh affirms, “if professional cai luong artists keep learning and adding new features to the art form. It is not imitation if we learn creatively from Konstantin Stanislavsky’s psychologically realistic theatre, Bertolt Brecht’s narrative technique, or ideas from classical and modern ballet. Unlike tuong, cheo, and spoken drama which are mostly either of a local or foreign origin, cai luong results from a unique blending of different performing arts from inside and outside Vietnam. So it tastes unique.”
Reprinted from VASC Orient