P.Q. Phan’s love of chèo was kindled by the hát bội performances (a type of Vietnamese traditional theater) that he watched as a young boy in his village communal house. It grew as he made in-depth study of chèo at college. When in graduate school working on his second masters degree in musicology, he took the opportunity to realize his passion for chèo in a thesis on Vietnamese traditional theater. Throughout his career, Phan has brought his childhood experience and academic knowledge into his music.
His study led him to believe that of all Vietnamese chèo stories, Quan Âm Thị Kính (a story about the Vietnamese female Buddha) is a true cultural gem. Prompted by this realization he nourished the idea of writing an opera based on this story of Thị Kính. One of the questions constantly on his mind is how to write a Western-styled opera that would be as good as, or even better than, the existing Vietnamese original.
Quan Âm Thị Kính, in P.Q. Phan’s opinion, is perfect in every way – the language is clever and beautiful; the story strikingly moving and memorable; the music marvelously in resonance with the language. Generally speaking, to write a work that would not detract from the quality of something so significant to Vietnamese culture is a real challenge and a tremendous responsibility. From Phan’s point of view, to write something not as good as the original story is a personal failure, and to write something that is so bad as to even destroy its meaning is an act of betrayal. All these thoughts and calculations translate to his anxious wait for the right moment when he feels he can do it.
Phan spent two years from 2005 to 2007 working on his first opera, Lorenzo de’ Medici, at the same time campaigning to have it performed at Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University. After its eventual concert in 2007, his colleagues said that they liked the music very much, but they were not terribly touched by the story. Phan then said he had a different story for them. He told the story of Quan Âm Thị Kính and right away they were enthralled by it. Phan saw a start.
It was the start of a process where people fell in love with the story and felt they could make a connection with it. It was a start also because Phan felt he was ready for the task – a “double responsibility,” as he described it. He was excited to embark on a new journey of rendering Quan Âm Thị Kính for the American audience, portraying something he loved dearly in such a way that would betray neither his artistic-and-emotional self, nor the (Vietnamese) audience who also know Quan Âm Thị Kính and love it dearly. He called his new opera The Tale of Lady Thị Kính.
The risks involved in creating The Tale of Lady Thị Kính are similar to those people face when they try to make the book they love into a movie. Most of the time people fail. People loved to read and imagine the story but when they actually see it on the big screen they don’t find it appealing in the least. Memoirs of a Geisha is a case in point. For Phan, Chèo Quan Âm Thị Kính works beautifully in front of a a make-shift village stage, will The Tale of Lady Thị Kính fit on the Western grand stage without its integrity being killed? This is the question every true artist must consider before they take any action.
After finishing Lorenzo de’ Medici and learning more about what the audience like and dislike, plus years of cumulative experience in writing vocal music, Phan was ready to roll up his sleeves for The Tale of Lady Thị Kính. The next thought process would be how to tell the story.
Now that the opera project started to roll, P.Q. Phan was focusing on the next step which was how to tell the story to the American audience. He was juggling the extent of the original story of Quan Âm Thị Kính he should keep and the way he visualized the new story as an artist – because in spite of himself, the new version of the story would be his intellectual property, and his authorship had started from the moment he initiated the creation process.
Adapting the story of Thị Kính to properly serve the audience is not a new thing. In fact, it is a custom in chèo. Numerous versions of the existing script themselves are clear evidence of all the changes and additions over time. In the beginning, Quan Âm Thị Kính was a simple story of a young lady’s tragic short life: agreeing to get married to please her father, then being wrongfully accused of trying to kill her husband, then leaving home to become a monk only to be seduced at the temple, denying any wrong doing, leaving the temple, dying and becoming Buddha.
In chèo performances, however, there are so many details that have been added to the script to reflect the values of the peasant culture rather than those of the higher class. Researchers have agreed on the significance of these details since it is very clear to them that all the peasants are invariably portrayed as good characters, whereas the upper class, from the teacher down to the village chief and the head monk, are on the opposite side of the moral scale.
The village performance is usually timed to coincide with the end of the harvest season when peasants finish with the crops and have long nights for entertainment, which results in the improvising nature of the chèo performances. To fill up time and retain the audience through the night, every time the peasant-actors performed the play, they would add something and remove something else as the situation required – be it a story-telling element to warm up the audience’s heart, or a joke to shake up a sleepy face. Every recorded script garnered is evidence of these changes.
On the first scene, for example, when Mãng Ông appears, he goes on and on about who he is, in a prolonged passage very much irrelevant to the story itself so much so that if taken out, the story still stays intact. The same thing is true of the word game between Vợ Mõ and Lý Trưởng, since there is no need for this back-and-forth banter between the two of them, and deleting this passage would not change the story in any way. Similarly, the scene where Phú Ông walks in on Thị Mầu and Nô is not an important detail because being caught or not, Thị Mầu is still pregnant. However, the purpose of Phú Ông’s intervention is significant in that it shows the bad behavior of a typical mandarin. Alas, these additions allow the peasant performers not only to have fun and enjoy themselves, but also to entertain their fellow peasant audience.
Those old additions and changes have been recorded and preserved in writing. After all, the peasant-performers aim to highlight their lives making it known that uneducated people can be very clever and can defeat the upper class at their own game. Now facing American audience, Phan thinks it is his turn to tell the story his own way. American opera goers are not wired to enjoy the light-hearted entertainment aimed at momentarily elevating their social status. Phan would have to consider, therefore, which details to keep and which to eliminate. By doing that, he doesn’t kill the integrity of the play. On the contrary, his act is part of the chèo tradition and a way to extend its tradition in the modern time.
While some people like to tell the story highlighting the Head Monk, Sư Cụ, to promote Buddhism, Phan thinks the Head Monk’s is an act of covert hypocrisy and cannot be interpreted in keeping with Buddhist teachings. Sư Cụ keeps saying the temple is there for everyone but he later denies Thị Kính shelter just because he dares not go against the village traditions. Phan strongly believes that if read carefully, the original script professes one fundamental belief that all peasants share: that if you live your life for goodness and a higher cause, eventually you can become a Buddha. This is what Thị Kính does and it is the core and integrity of the story never to lose sight of. The rest of the details will be sieved as Phan pens his own libretto.
Now that the first page is in sight, what should the title be?
The answer is: A whole world of difference that can sometimes be smashed down to sameness by geo-political confusion! Quan Âm Thị Kính is the story about the Vietnamese female Buddha. In other Asian cultures there exist stories about female Buddhas as well, yet none is as popular as Quan Âm Thị Kính is in Vietnam. As P.Q. Phan created his new opera, The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, based on this popular story its significance prompted him to search for a title that best reflects the essence of the Vietnamese story. Here is how.
In Vietnamese Buddhism, the female representation of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who has the power to assume any form as required by circumstances is called Quan Âm. The folk tale of Quan Âm is about an ordinary woman named Thị Kính. Born into a poor family she goes through a lot of misunderstandings and hardships in her life and at one point has no choice but to seek monkhood for her survival. As a “monk” she proves to possess unconditional love and compassion for people she encounters. As a result of her actions, she touches Buddha’s heart and is invited into “Nirvana” transforming into a female Buddha known as “Quan Âm Thị Kính.”
Without trying hard for an analogy, this story of Thị Kính is very close to that of Buddha himself. Like Buddha, Thị Kính has to pay her dues to a secular life before she could enter monkhood to achieve a more spiritual one. In fact, she chooses to live in a way that mirrors the basic Buddhist teachings thus bringing her peace and happiness. Her actions, undiluted by any local religious beliefs imported from China, eg. Daoism, reveals the core belief of Vietnamese peasants in the 10th century with regard to goodness and spirituality. All these has to be taken into consideration when it comes to the title, starting with its translation from Vietnamese.
Many people translate “Quan Âm Thị Kính” into English as “Goddess of Mercy Thị Kính.” This translation is problematic for two reasons. First, Thị Kính is not a “goddess” – a term often used to refer to a deity in Chinese Daoism. While deity is one whose behavior is still influenced by senses of happiness, sadness, or anger like other humans, Buddha has already transformed to stay beyond these typical behaviors. To address a Buddha “Goddess” is inappropriate in the least.
Second, “mercy” here implies the power to forgive those who mistreated you during this earthly life. Thị Kính never means to blame or criticize anyone for their wrong doings or for the ordeals she goes through in the first place, to forgive them later. What is revealed through her choices in life is her wishes to have peace and happiness for herself and people around her. For these two reasons, P.Q. Phan believes “Quan Âm Thị Kính” could more properly be translated as “The Benevolent Lady Thị Kính.”
However, if Phan used The Benevolent Lady Thị Kính as the title for his new opera, original as it might be, this title – as well as its Vietnamese equivalent, Quan Âm Thị Kính – would still be misleading on account of its religious connotation. For “Benevolent” implies kindness and generosity from some authority or spirit above. The creators of Quan Âm Thị Kính, however, are peasants who have contributed over ten centuries to the creation of the character of Thị Kính as an ordinary person like them, not wishing for a moment a hierarchical relationship where she is above and they at the bottom. The Benevolent Lady Thị Kính, therefore, is still not the title as befitted the Thị Kính Phan has in mind.
At the same time, Phan also wants to tell this story from a different perspective – a humanistic one. He thinks the tale revolves for the most part around the life of Thị Kính who lives and sacrifices her life for a better society. A close reading of the script reveals that the tale is a human rights voice, or rather, a host of voices for women's rights in unison.
It was then that the title, The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, was suggested to him. Phan found that this title reflects a very neutral concept of who Thị Kính is and thus projects a more appropriate image for his opera. Equally important, this title does not favor either religion or social structures. Phan liked it and ultimately decided to keep it. The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, after all, will be portraying Vietnamese life and culture in the 10th century as it tells the story of Thị Kính. Her life is a good example to show that an ordinary woman who lives life for a higher cause can become a meaningful symbolic figure in society. Without rejecting the inevitable religious interpretation of Thị Kính’s transformation, the opera is also evident that with love, compassion, and perseverance, a woman can eventually transcend to become a higher being, and that you don’t have to be born a Buddha to become Buddha – in fact, as Thị Kính has shown, anyone can become Buddha.
Together, all the characters in The Tale of Lady Thị Kính are people’s representative voices demanding justice, equality, and free love. Nobody will be flying on the stage like goddesses – except Thị Kính as she transcends to become Buddha entering Nivarna!
Research for the libretto of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính started with the script of the Vietnamese traditional theater (chèo), Quan Âm Thị Kính. The best-known work of its kind, "Quan Âm Thị Kính" has various oral versions collected and preserved in writing by several authors, each choosing to keep and omit different things. PQ Phan, creator of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, needed to go through several collections and combine them into one version of his own. What made his task easy is that most of the collections are quite similar, the difference being only in the wording and minor details.
Given the time restraint, the next step for Phan is to trim some details but still allow the new opera to stay true to the chèo story. In Vietnamese chèo there is the prologue (giáo đầu) – a tremendously long passage that tells people what is going to happen in the story and how it is going to end. This is a Vietnamese story-telling feature favored by the old-time peasants as they scurried around looking for a spot to settle down for the show. In the western tradition the prologue is intentionally short, short enough to ease the audience into their quiet mode to get ready for the performance. Phan thinks it’s wise to stick with this. As a result, the long chèo prologue was the first to go.
Studying the combined Vietnamese script of Quan Âm Thị Kính, Phan was pondering the traditional western grand opera. The word “grand opera” has obvious implications: (1) A large cast – which is good because Quan Âm Thị Kính has a large cast; (2) A large orchestra – this is way surpassing the traditional practice of chèo where the ensemble traditionally requires five to seven instruments. Phan noted that the size of the orchestra affects the text and music setting that he would deal with later. (3) A chorus – this is the most different feature of all because all Vietnamese operas require no chorus. The reason for this can be traced back to an underlying economic consideration of a troupe put together by a few farming families to perform off season. During the chèo performance, the audience would occasionally hear something like a chorus behind the stage but it turned out to be the voice of only several people singing not to herald anything but to respond to some rhetorical questions or interact with the actor on stage.
In the West it would not do without a chorus because of the emphasis on stage spectacle – if you don’t see a lot of people on stage it is not exciting enough. At this point, in his attempt to present The Tale of Lady Thị Kính as a standard Western opera Phan was forced to create new passages for the chorus. With this first major adjustment it suddenly dawned on him that he was actually going to reconstruct the script instead of just translating it. The second adjustment was dictated by thoughts about Western logic in story-telling techniques. While a Vietnamese chèo performance is concerned about a good story that can be stretched throughout the night to entertain the audience, logic is not a priority in the process, stretch-ability is. A logical Western story, on the other hand, requires all details to be tightly connected. If they are not concise and related, they are irrelevant. Phan knew his job is to tighten up some details and shuffle things around a little to create a solid Western-styled construction for his opera story.
Logic aside, Western behavior also generates comparisons that need to be justified. Thus the third consideration. In most Vietnamese operas, people only sing together when they agree, and that is part of their philosophy. In another word, they do not sing together when they disagree. At the same time, their conversation literally follows one another without interruption to show propriety and respect. Phan knew these would not play well with Western audience because assertiveness is key to western behavior and interruption part of reality. If people are excited or disagree and they interrupt immediately, and they sing together to express harmony as well as conflicting feelings at their climax. Needless to say, Phan must speed up the conversations in his opera and create interactions that register with the Western mind and sparkle cultural curiosity and imagination, all at the same time.
Taking up those musical, cultural, and philosophical challenges, Phan decided to translate and add more to the combined Vietnamese script by reconstructing it, turning it into the libretto of his opera, The Tale of Lady Thị Kính. He was writing a story that keeps the core and its integrity about a Vietnamese girl who metamorphoses into a female Buddha, with details and a structure easily recognizable by all Vietnamese and enjoyable by Western audience. In Phan’s mind, the libretto has taken a full shape.
Actual work on the libretto of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is a parallel process between translating and reconstructing the Vietnamese script. PQ Phan already cut the prologue (giáo đầu) and replaced it with the short overture instead. In terms of function, they serve the same purpose of rounding up people and calming them down, making them know that the opera is about to start.
So the text for the chorus is about Spring: Spring arrives, life is vibrant, everything is lush, and people look for love. That sets the season and the reason for Thiện Sĩ to walk out and sing about his loneliness and his need for a wife. This whole section is brand new and a creation by Phan.
After Thị Kính agrees to marry Thiện Sĩ, instead of having them sing a happy song about marriage right away, Phan has his family, the Sùngs, bring the dowry over as an indication of a wedding. The action also creates a sense of skepticism in the air when the audience realize on stage that the Sùng family is rich and the Mãngs poor. People will question whether this marriage will last forever. The two families set aside differences to gather at the wedding for now but omens of disaster already reveal themselves, one more time in their singing. To celebrate the wedding they sing about the duty of a woman but not that of a man. In a sense that puts a lot of pressure on women and indicates that if anything goes wrong, it is the women that are to blame. A sense of something fatal about to happen is lurking behind their happiness.
Phan’s vision for the end of this scene is realized: the chorus and the two families are already on stage, thus a wedding scene heaving into sight; the facility is more than adequate to accommodate whatever he visualized. Pushing forward, after Thị Kính agrees to marry Thiện Sĩ, Phan closes the scene with an elaborate wedding – the first grand finale it is.
First, the previous act ends in Fall, so now it is Spring again. Phan has the chorus come out and sing about Spring. Thị Mầu prepares her offering for the Spring first temple visit just like everyone else, and contemplates an opportunity to fall in love with Mr. Right. Phan then creates a true group of friends for Thị Mầu to play a literal role of her internal personality, and to play out the constant struggles between good and evil within herself. Eventually, much more colorful and complicated than the mono-dimension dialogue between Thị Mầu and Thị Kính in the original script, Thị Mầu’s flirting with Thị Kính turns into a “ménage à trois” between Thị Mầu, Thị Kính, and Thị Mầu’s friends/Thị Mầu’s internal personality. At the high peak of conflict, the chorus enter the stage and join the conversation representing the public opinion. By now, the four forces conflict with one another and create a new four-dimension setting which highlights the drama significantly to the level that meets the expectation of a western grand opera.
The final shape of PQ Phan’s creation is a two-act ten-scene opera.
The marketplace without villagers is not the market. To create the sense of the market, Phan has Tiểu Kính Tâm/Thị Kính sit there to beg, and villagers pass by mocking and spitting on her. They also throw things at her and leave without giving her anything. This span of time gives Tiểu Kính Tâm enough time to lament about “her” imminent death.
When Sư Cụ goes to the market and finds the baby and Tiểu Kính Tâm’s body, he picks up the letter to read. Instead of having him read the long letter himself, Phan decided to have Thị Kính read it herself. The reason for this is that the Vietnamese version lets Thị Kính die as a man but does not create an opportunity for her to turn back into a woman. By having Thị Kính singing the letter, Phan gives her an opportunity to re-transform into a woman again, and to show evidence that she is in nirvana now to tell the story to everybody.
At the same time, as Thị Kính is telling her story, it is a chance for every character to come back on stage. There, they confess their sins and seek reconciliation and forgiveness. Together, they glorify the holiness of Thị Kính. A grandeur closing for the opera is here to stay.
The libretto of Quan Âm Thị Kính is a valuable Vietnamese folk work. There is no surprise that its translation and reconstruction into the libretto of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính may raise doubt among many Vietnamese about whether the new libretto will remain a literary work they can recognize. Those people can rest assure that they will like the new libretto by PQ Phan as well, just in a new way. Because it is usually not practical to set music to a literary work this size, what Phan did was not to translate to have a literary work but to create a workable libretto for a Vietnamese opera.
Given the passage of time between the original libretto that is about a thousand years old and the current practice in opera appreciation, there are several literary devices that Phan needs to take heed of.
In old literary Vietnamese works, the use of phonetic pun to create humor is a very common practice. For example when Mãng Ông first appears, he sings about his wealth and uses the phrase “Giàu giảu giàu giau” which simply means “rich.” The repetition of both the consonant and the vowel to create the rippling effect of sounds is a poetic device that is used not only in literature but also very popular in everyday conversation. All Vietnamese find it funny. Unfortunately, this is one linguistic flavor that cannot be tasted by the Americans in an English translation. Think of it as an equivalent to a combined use of both alliteration and assonance – impossible to translate. To simplify, “rich” is used.
As terms or phrases used to refer to an understood literary situation, epic implications are used in almost every page of the Vietnamese script. Phan decided to get rid of most of them because they do not add to clarifying the story in any way to western audience, thus there is no point in talking about them. When he kept one, such as when Thiện Sĩ sings about his love life in relation to the tale of Từ Thức, it is one love story most Vietnamese people know and that is appropriate to be preserved in the English version.
Fifty percent of the original script is in poetic form: very symmetrical, and rhythmic at times. These features are not suitable in a libretto for an opera, not to mention that when you have a fixed number of words per phrase, the music has to be curved along these lines with its free movement restricted. Needless to say, Phan liberated the words in free form poems so that it is still poetic enough for the ears, but still modern and practical for the music setting. No rhymes are tolerated, however, because they are not a welcoming presence in a libretto. After all, Phan reminded that this is a musical work, not a literary translation and they are completely different. If a musical work has a certain degree of literary value then it is all the more incredible, but one cannot translate a work into a literary one then set music to it.
The script of “Quan Âm Thị Kính” is one with very clever language that Vietnamese people love. So far, with all the adjustments, a lot of this cultural flavor is lost in translation. Rest assure audience, PQ Phan already had a plan to make up for this with what he considers lacking in the Vietnamese script so that in the end he has a new libretto brimming with colors and images American audience can appreciate.
Take, for example, the passage of singing by Thị Kính about her happy married life with Thiện Sĩ and dreams about their even more prosperous future.
Ông tơ nguyệt ngồi xe chỉ đỏ
Xe thiếp vào bạn với lang quân.
Đôi lứa ta duyên đẹp Tấn Tần.
Dây tơ đỏ càng xe càng thắm.
In this Vietnamese version, the verb [xe] – weave, the color [đỏ] – red, and the image of [tơ] – the thread, are used repeatedly to paint the picture of two happy people. Phan realized that repetition is not an attractive element in the English translation. He also questioned the use of only red color as probably the Chinese influence – for red is not such a popular color in traditional Vietnamese culture. He decided to revamp the whole passage to have this:
Sitting here I concentrate on stitching,
Weaving threads of gold and red.
Threads of life I weave and knit,
Dream of the glorious time to come.
Three verbs: weave, knit, stitch and the colors of red – for wedding, passion, affection, and gold – for glory and wealth, definitely create a more lively and vivid picture for the audience. In this one example Phan believes his translation is doing great service to this Vietnamese much loved folk work by showing the level of flexibility and universality of the work in the modern time.
In the Vietnamese script, this phrase, “Nam mô a di đà Phật,” has only one meaning throughout which is “blessing.” Phan took it, put on different musical interpretations, and infused it with a variety of meanings. The final product is one that is very much closer to the western usage of “Hallelujah.” The translation of the term, though looks the same on paper, takes on new meanings when music is applied. Be it sung to indicate blessing, personal/sexual interest, or interpreted as sometimes sacred, sometimes sinful, or sometimes mocking, Nam mô a di đà Phật’s various interpretations are considered a significant contribution on Phan’s side that has swept the Thị Kính story out of the Vietnamese borders into the sea of universalization.
The composer and the librettist of an opera are usually two different people and their collaboration is not always a smooth sail. For The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, this journey is much simplified as PQ Phan is both its composer and librettist.
Since he started conceiving The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, Phan knows, as a composer, that it is not easy to find a librettist for it. The composer normally has to trust the librettist completely and let them do their work. The librettist is oftentimes a poet or a writer who has a knack for words but most of the time without knowledge about the close relationship between the text and the music as far as the libretto is concerned. With no control over the libretto, once it is finished and arrives at the composer’s hands, it would become a little bit of a task for him to change some words to fit the music in case he needs to – because authorship of the libretto belongs to the librettist. Any changes the composer wants to make have to be discussed and approved by the librettist.
Because of the subtle relation between the two, one can say it is difficult to have a perfect marriage between the text and the music. However, if sometimes people may not like the libretto that much but the music and the story are overwhelmingly beautiful, it may work out well because then the story and music are the central points of interest and the libretto is pushed to the corner. Not knowing the path for his new opera, Phan was hoping for the best.
Phan initially didn’t plan to work on the libretto himself. He was looking for a librettist but the search went to a dead end. He then started doing the translation himself and very soon realized he could write his own libretto. In many ways, this makes good sense. Where else could he find someone who is fluent in Vietnamese and has a deep understanding of its culture the way he does? Where else could he find a Vietnamese speaking person who is also well versed in English and American culture the way he does? By a stroke of luck, PQ Phan became the librettist for his own opera – something very rare in this field of opera writing.
The results, admittedly, are nothing but great advantages Phan soon discovered for himself as a composer. One, while the composer normally cannot start composing music until the libretto is done, Phan could start conceiving the music at the same time he was writing the libretto – a head start for him. Two, the text paves the way for the music to happen. Phan wrote the text so he knows the music direction early. At the same time, the music also requires the text to behave in a certain way. By working on both words and music simultaneously, Phan had a great chance to engage in this integral relationship between them right from the beginning – another benefit for Phan to rip.
He said that by nature language already sets the tone and direction for the music in some way, but as a poet or a writer the librettist don’t usually know of it – they are all ears to the text as words. Phan, as a composer, already hears the music the moment he pens the words. He knows that there are some certain notes that can be used with some certain words because the intonation or nuance of the words indicate what low or high notes they are. As a result, as a librettist, Phan would translate and carefully pick the words that allow him to have a particular shape or melodic contour of music that he wants to have.
For example, at a climatic point, he is likely to use higher notes which means having to use words beginning with vowels such as [s], [f] because the pronunciation of these allow a free flow of air that helps the singers go high. Words beginning with consonants such as [t], [p], or [dr] disrupt the air flow and make it difficult for singers to sing high. Therefore, as it turned out for Phan, the translating and thinking about music/writing music are parallel processes – a treasure of experience.
Phan also learns one thing about the libretto: it should be poetic enough to sing and practical enough to create drama. He never loses sight of this. In the end, Phan created a libretto that is phonetically and culturally synchronized to the music – just like a perfect marriage between them is supposed to be.
The libretto is finished, Phan only needed to carry out some minor adjustment before he really sat down to set music to it. What are these adjustments? – Tune in for the next time.
In a work that crosses cultures like The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, it is essential to have people from outside to read and make comments to see where it stands. After finishing the libretto for The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, PQ Phan arranged a reading for it. His colleagues in ethnomusicology, conducting, and voice came to land a hand. Each chose a role, and started reading aloud.
Their suggestions for changes in grammar were very useful for Phan: add “the” here, replace “to” with “for,” etc. With the colleagues’ help, the libretto looks and sounds better.
Besides the language, the music experts also made suggestions or asked unexpected questions that could make the author come down on one side of the fence or the other – the one about a Vietnamese wedding procedure being a case in point. At the ceremony, Thị Kính and Thiện Sĩ take three bows to heaven, earth, and their parents. Even though it is a cultural thing to do, this makes no sense to the Western audience. The suggestion is to take it out. For an explanation, Phan admitted it is true the bowing is meaningless to Western social tradition but if taken out, it destroys the entire atmosphere about Vietnamese culture, the way it is supposed to be. A solution for this is for stage director and set designer to create an opera that looks and feels Vietnamese so that the audience can accept the cultural nuances without questions.
Then, when it comes to humor, people usually want to see things they are familiar with, which is a natural thing. So at the scene where the three comical characters of Thầy Bói the blind, Cụ Đồ the deaf, Cụ Hương the dumb, are trying to show off, the readers did not see them as funny the way Vietnamese people do. Instead, these characters remind them of the monkey shows, which led to their suggestion of enlarging their roles giving them more meaning and turning them into three monkeys that cannot see, hear or talk. Understandable as the suggestion is, the adjustment would present a completely different concept. In chèo, the funny details are there just to entertain the old time audience who had a whole night long to kill. The comical characters are probably added for this specific purpose and even though they carry potential symbolic meanings, they are not what the story is about. Giving them bigger roles would distract the audience from the main characters and turn The Tale of Lady Thị Kính into a stand-up comedy.
Leaving the three characters the way they are didn’t work either for the western audience. Several months into the project, Phan finally decided to cut this part. Three roles are lost, but the story maintains its universal appeal.
Not only are outside readers good cultural critics, they also give the librettist an opportunity to step back and look at his own thinking, sometimes with a new perspective. This is when the “hair issue” comes into the picture.
Thị Kính is at the in-law’s house. One night as Thiện Sĩ is sleeping, she notices a single hair growing backward from his chin. As she is trying to cut it, Thiện Sĩ awakes and accuses her of trying to kill him, triggering the whole charade responsible for her life mishaps. The readers questioned: What about this single hair that people make a big deal out of it? Exactly right. No Vietnamese has ever asked this question before. They have lived in and breathed this Vietnamese air of the story for a thousand years to the point they don’t think about it anymore.
Now that Phan comes to think about it, he believes the hair, even in Vietnamese standard, doesn’t mean anything either. It is simply a silly excuse to create all the drama for the story. The folklore authors wanted to say that even one stupid little thing can trigger something big to happen. Because to put it simply, if the hair bore some serious meaning, that it is a bad omen and needs to be removed, the parents-in-law would not have made a big deal about Thị Kính cutting it.
On another level, the hair as a stupid excuse is used to show that the value of a woman’s life is equal to something meaningless, that society values women so little. That is a way for the peasant creators to criticize society. Maybe this detail has not been analyzed before by Vietnamese critics because it is our culture, we are Vietnamese, and we think we understand it. In fact, we don’t – like something you hear so often you think you understand but you don’t. Even the performers in the old time, they may not understand the significance of the hair detail they added here, but subconsciously, they meant to say that the value of a woman’s life is next to nothing.
Phan does not have to change anything about the hair detail, he simply gained an insight into his own work.
The reading has inarguably some value to it. Phan has to realize, however, that what others say sometimes is constructive, sometimes destructive. It is his call to do the final cut.
For a short composition based on a spur of the moment there is no need to have a concept. It is absolutely necessary, however, for a work of a large size, 2-hour long for example, to be unified by a concept. Without it, everything in the work will become grains of sand.
Where does the concept come from?
Talking about The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, PQ Phan says that concept is something that doesn’t come to you right away. You keep thinking about it and thinking about it – in the shower, during the meal, on bed, in the car – basically whatever you do you think about it. It actually takes a while for a concept to come. You cannot take it for granted, though, because not all large works have concepts. These fail and we no longer know them. Those do, they are successful and still get performed today.
For example, Carmen is, at least this is one way to analyze it, incredible because of its concepts of love, pleasure and cruelty. Carmen represents free love and free spirit, while her boyfriend love and cruelty. These concepts interweave and go through the whole opera. One can clearly see the expression of this in Carmen’s death in the ending. It appears to be simple but how she gets killed is what is stirring: during a bull game. The interpretation is that the killing of a woman is comparable to a bull fight. Bull fight is something people do because they love it. It is also one area where passion and cruelty exist simultaneously. The mixture of the three concepts in Carmen’s death brings up intense drama, an element very much needed in an opera.
Another way to talk about concept is that it is like philosophy. It goes beyond the story to talk about something deeper. For example, Romeo and Juliet is a story about love. At the same time, a mature audience can see that through this love story, Shakespeare is hammering feudalism and the meaningless of the system. The story is an artistic means to criticize society.
Of all Vietnamese chèo (traditional theater) performances, Quan Âm Thị Kính is the most loved, probably because it has a clear concept that resonates with a majority of the Vietnamese. So for Phan to work on the concept for his new opera The Tale of Lady Thị Kính based on the script of Quan Âm Thị Kính, that is an arduous task.
On one hand, Phan believes the concept from the author/composer is individual – there is no fixed concept for a certain story. People may like different things about the story and therefore interpret it in different ways. On the other hand, there are details that people cannot change – though they can still pick and choose how they portray them. These cornerstone details have to find their way into the main concept of a story.
In The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, one such detail is Thị Kính’s background: she comes from a poor family. This crucial detail is to keep because it means that the story is about, or at least from the perspective of, the common people and not the mandarin class. Hundreds of years ago, the peasant authors put all the efforts into creating a main character who was poor but who went on to become a legendary figure of the time – a female Buddha. They knew this was not reality, but at least they could dream about it. This dream has to be respected. As one reads through the script from the first to the last scenes and witnesses Thị Kính in action at her father’s farm home, to the in-law’s, to the temple, at the market, beneath the sacred fig, and in Nirvana, one sees these dots that when connected portray a journey of growth from the lowest level – commoner, to the highest one – Buddha. For Phan, the concept of transcendence is clear. This will be the concept of his opera – aesthetically and musically. The story and the music will develop revolving around Thị Kính. Other characters such as Thị Mầu, Sùng Bà, Thiện Sĩ, appear a lot but how big and significant a role they play depends on how supportive they should be to the main character of Thị Kính.
The transcendent concept of the opera The Tale of Lady Thị Kính also translates into its music. Over all, the music starts with something naïve, bright, almost too cheerful, even cheesy, as PQ Phan described it. As the story progresses the music becomes more serious, darker, more sacred and more dramatic. Musically speaking, the tone centers become higher and higher to reflect the transcendent concept. So much so that the ending is completely in contrast to the beginning.
Before actually getting down to music, Phan reminds that he has to think first about the philosophy of an opera: What is an opera? In the world of art for art’s shake, especially from the 20th century on, it is difficult to determine what an opera is. Some people think it is something that has to be musically innovative for two hours, or absolutely creative throughout. Phan agrees with the innovative and creative part of an opera, but he believes that when the philosophy of an opera is included in the discussion, an opera itself represents a completely different art form than a symphony, requiem, or mass. It has to deal with the audience in the way of entertainment. The opera composer has to constantly think about the balance between aspiration and inspiration – the first is about how much you want to reach people, and the latter how much to “preach.” A fine balance, indeed. In most of the successful operas, Phan believes their composers have picked the right balance between these two elements. Don Giovanni, Magic Flute, for example, are clearly sources of inspiration for many people, still.
With The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, Phan has to choose which part to entertain and which part to inspire. Musically, the pick and choose is done through the songs for each character. Thị Kính’s arias, by all means, are not to entertain. In many senses, they mean to inspire or to preach people. As the texts of the songs suggest, they preach morality and religious belief – over all, a way of living. To infuse an element of entertainment into these arias would be ridiculous. Therefore, inspiration they are! As Thị Kính grows in life, the arias are changing accordingly to match her spiritual journeys.
From the beginning, Thị Kính’s aria is about what it means to be a woman. Simple as it is, the text suggests that to be a woman means to serve the family, the husband, and the society. Thị Kính now is a young girl singing out what she is taught without thinking about it, let alone questioning the duty per se. So, not judging the quality of the statement, the music is naïve and bright.
In the next aria, Thị Kính sings about marital love, e.g. her duty as a married woman. Again, preaching is the tone, not entertainment. Her maturity at this stage shows more in the marriageable age she is, but not through her life experience as a human being yet with an understanding of the meaning of life. As a result, the music has certain naïve quality, is still joyous with only a slight touch of seriousness.
The moment Thị Kính decides to give up her secular life to become a monk, she becomes a real adult. She starts to question not only the role of women but also the state of being human. To reflect all that, the music is not wandering aimlessly but moves directly from low to high, as if saying “Hah, I find the answers.” These are not the most crucial answers for the biggest questions of Thị Kính’s life but they are major and the music behaves accordingly. In the flirting scene at the temple, Thị Mầu holds a bigger role while Thị Kính a supporting one consistently “chanting” her determination to be a monk. Even though sparse, Thị Kính’s singing reflects her concern about what her life is turning to be once Thị Mầu falls in love with her. This skepticism is a sign of a more mature woman who realizes that life is no longer simple and monkhood is not the ultimate answer for her life. Through this particular aria, Thị Kính learns that things are evolving beyond her imagination and planning.
At the trial of Thị Mầu’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Thị Kính is there but her aria – simply about her innocence – is not important. Phan says perhaps the only significant thing about the aria is the talk to herself. Thinking that her life is in turmoil and ruined, Thị Kính believes she might as well accept the blame to grant Thị Mầu a new life. This is growth of maturity at a higher level, for when she becomes a monk, it is for her own good; now she accepts the blame for others’ sake she actually transcends to become someone better than herself. This is a reflection of Buddhism, that you start to give things away – a part of yourself to receive something else. Here again, she still does not know what is going to happen to her, therefore the music does not show the derivative goal of going from point A to point B. Instead, it shows the happenings.
In Scene 9 when Thị Kính gets kicked out of the temple, story wise and music wise, there is nothing more important than the concept that the temple is no longer her shelter, but the sacred fig is. One sees a parallel with the Buddhist concept of Buddha becoming an Enlightened One while sitting under the sacred fig, not in the temple – for Thị Kính, too, would not be enlightened had she not been kicked out of the temple. So the aria about leaving the temple is almost like an introduction to a bigger aria when she’s singing about taking the baby to the market place – a climatic moment in her journey and also of the story. The baby here is put under the tree and the sacred fig itself is the starting point for her eventful spiritual journey.
“Taking the baby to the marketplace” is the most important aria for Thị Kính, very transcendent in many levels. The text itself, going to the marketplace, means moving from one place to another just like the movement from one stage to the next in the transcendent process. Musically, it starts less emotional to become more so; the music goes from low to high and from calm to become more urgent.
At this point, the overall music of the opera is already very modernistic and with very little sense of nationalism, than the beginning where it is close to Vietnamese traditional music. In fact, the music in the end is closer to universalism – it could be from anybody from any nationality, as long as they are humans. The quality of music has been changing to portray the concept of how one person transcends to be a more supreme being.
“Taking the baby to the marketplace” aria later on is being enlarged to turn into a long aria when Thị Kính tells her life story from Nirvana in the last part of the opera. These two arias are very much similar, except the latter is expanded and its augmentation shows not only in a single line, several modulation or transposition, but also in the volume and the size as well. For, towards the end, many people join in to sing and create the tour de force that literally helps to paint a picture of reality mixed with dreams: that ultimately an ordinary being can become a supreme one. Thị Kính indeed holds the musical concept for the whole opera.
After all is done, "The Tale of Lady Thị Kính" is a bundle of a thousand plus pages of sweat and joy. They are sized 11x17, and every note is composed and written down by pencil, for a large force. The time-consuming and expensive processes of engraving begin.
To help execute the plan, Phan hired a copyist to copy every single note and turn the pencil score into a computerized notation score. Their job after that is to go back and forth to proof read and make sure all the notes are correct, all the details are in line, and there is no mistake. It is estimated that a minute in an opera rehearsal costs thousands of dollars. Imagine during rehearsal, if someone has a question about the score, the whole orchestra has to stop. Together with the conductor and their assistant, everybody has to check and double check. That is time and money of everybody. That said, this engraving task appears to be simple but turns out to be a tremendous one, especially with a score of more than a thousand pages.
When Phan and his copyist are sure that the computerized notation score matched the original completely, they have a complete full score from which the piano vocal score is produced. This means going back a thousand pages and choosing which is crucial and suitable to put in the reduction score, and adding the texts in – it is almost like composing a new piece. This score is important because the instrumental part of the full score is reduced to be playable by one piano, or two – most practical and common is one. This way the singers can find their own pianist to practice with.
From the full score, the copyist also starts to extract parts. Each instrument will finally have a book, for example book part for flute one, book part for flute two, and so on. Who needs what
The conductor, assistant conductor, choir master, and the producer definitely need the full score. Sometimes singers also want to take a look at the full score to see how they should project their voice.
The designer usually doesn’t need the score. Yet, some with musical background may need one because it gives them some sense of color and atmosphere and space of the opera. For the stage director, it depends. Those who know music well want the full score so they have more details of what is going on. Those who don’t, a piano vocal score will do. Role singers are fine with the piano vocal score that they will use to practice. Choir members need piano vocal scores.
Last but not least, instrumentalists receive their own book part. In the old days, the copyist would have to get the pencil score and copy everything in ink, and then extract the parts to make into instrumental parts. A team of people would be needed to do this, and it could take months. Nowadays, all this can be done with support from a computerized notation software which is very helpful. Still, it is months of labor in the making. Needless to say, an opera is indeed a gigantic and expensive project.
First of all, the duration of the work. How to entertain people keep people interested for an entire event of 2 hours is challenging. The story alone is never enough. One can easily tell the story within 5 minutes. Now to put into music and last 2 hours and hope the audience sit there and enjoy it – quite a challenge.
The audience can be distracted by spectacular spectacles but those things could become tedious easily. Ultimately it has to be the music. It has to be powerful, attractive, emotional, expressive enough to keep people on all the time. Good music alone is not enough. It has to be something magical. The challenging thing is how to create at least one magical moment in an opera. To create something and when people listen to it they have goose bumps – that is a magical moment. Without that, one can perceive that the opera is a failure. How to create that magical moment? From details of the story?
The story does not do anything. It can be guideline. The magical moment is how to do it and has very little to do with the story. It takes a genius to do that. You can give the same story to another person and they can never be able to do anything with it. For me to create that genius mind is the most challenging thing to do in an opera. To do something that so effective and not explainable – that is equivalent to magical.
This opera has a series of magical moments in a way that escalate from one scene to another scene. Toward the end, it has the most magical moment after all.
It will be not a surprise for people to perceive them differently than others, but at least that is what I plan in mind. I think the audience see that, they can feel that there is a magical moment in every scene. The interesting thing is if we make too many magical moment, then the opera will be distracted. Better to focus on one magical moment for each scene. Even though a magical moment is a wonderful thing to do one needs to be economical about it – one per scene and make sure that it escalates from one scene to the next. Ultimately the accession, that is the most magical moment of all – appropriate because it is magical for Thị Kính to transcend to go to higher realm to become higher being – this magical moment has many meanings: the music touches listeners, the story touches them with the meaning of it, to highlight the concept of the entire opera as well.
To make sure this opera is better or different than the existent hat cheo. The challenge is: Somehow, people familiar with the hat cheo of the same title can still see something valuable in the opera as well – this is with Vietnamese audience. Since They already know the cheo, they tend to be bias and more conservative and have a more difficult time to open to new things. My challenge is this new thing is effective enough that they will embrace as well. It would be something that makes them feel “this is an addition, an evolution to something that already happened before.”
Other challenges: to deal with text and form and to create continuity for entire opera – technical concerns. I have to constantly struggle and find an approach for the opera: should it be art for art’s sake or a functional opera. When it comes to an opera, it’s always a functional event, not art for art’s sake. It is to entertain anyone who likes music, not necessarily how much they know music. The responsibility is there. When you do things like that, that means you have to write the kind of music that is more approachable – meaning under the eyes of other composers, the music is not innovative enough, but the point of innovation over here is not so much focusing on the technique but on the meaning of the opera. Meanings like: I write songs, arias reflecting gender, social class, age, education. By being willing to not concentrate so much on technique, I concentrate on the meaning of the opera – that in itself is innovative.
Music is complex and interesting in the current time. When you please the crowd, you tend not to please the music experts. When you please the experts, you cannot please the general audience. For me to do this opera, I need to create the balance: on the surface, it is attractive, easy to understand. Deep behind, it is something extremely substantial with incredible techniques in there that somehow musical experts can be pleased as well. Emotional journey?
Writing the piece itself is pure joy. There is no agony at all. To sit there and create something that is considered a musical luxury or the luxurious journey in music making is sheer joy, a privilege that a lot of people don’t have. Something that makes you feel good about yourself, makes you feel enlightened, and of course when you feel like that, the music is like that as well.
Something that you look forward to working on everyday. Everyday 3-4 hours a day, devoted to the opera. There is no one moment that is considered to be hard labor. It is incredible efforts for sure, but it is not something you agonize about. Something you cannot wait to work on. Occasionally, I need to take a moment or two to see how I should approach an idea – that is sheer joy as well, to figure out how to do it.
The most agony: to think about would all this incredible investment with time and money will I ever see the piece performed. Even when there is a commission, the company will decide whether to perform or not.
Finishing the opera is, one can say I am extremely happy, the last measure and I am done. But immediately after that, it is an incredible empty. Almost like giving birth, you wait for 9 months. When the baby is out, you are so happy with it. Then you realize that journey for the baby to come out is done, now you have to get ready for the new journey. Right at the moment between journeys, you feel the most empty. It is a syndrome most composers or artists have. Or when you spend the entire life working on the Ph.D. the moment you finish, you feel empty. What did you do?
You cope with that. Look for the next journey. The production or writing new pieces. I have already finished the double concertante for violin and piano for chamber orchestra, now it is going to be the Vietnamese requiem. The process of doing things is pure joy. That is why people are doing it, otherwise don’t do it. Every single note I put down, it is cliché to say, but it is like labor of love.
The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is nothing short of P.Q. Phan’s “baby.” Much as he wishes for its magnificent production and reception, the matters are pretty much out of his hands. Yet a composer and librettist he is, well wishes, here in way of a conclusion to The Creation Series, are what he has to share.
To approach a cross-cultural work such as The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, the production team as well as the Vietnamese audience tend to be concerned about the question of correct and incorrect cultural interpretations. Most Americans in general have little knowledge of Vietnamese culture. They tend to think, however, that they may be more familiar with Chinese culture. They may even think that Asian countries have many things in common with Chinese culture making the “correct interpretations” to be ones that are Chinese-like. The general Vietnamese audience, on the other hand, may not be able to agree on any one-and-only Vietnamese representation because of the unfortunately long history of interaction between the two countries and cultures. For anyone who dares to try, the clarification of a correct interpretation of authentic Vietnamese culture to both American and Vietnamese audience almost seems like hitting the brick wall.
For his two cents, PQ Phan thinks that often portraying something correctly is important but in this case far less important than not portraying something incorrectly. In other words, getting rid of the incorrect interpretation of Vietnamese culture is more important than focusing on portraying things correctly. In light of this, if the goal is 100% on cultural presentation, and we can spend 90% on deleting or avoiding misrepresentation, and 10% on portraying something correctly, Phan considers that successful. In another episode, if you spend 50-50 on those efforts, the attempt could lead to an unsuccessful rendition. For what it’s worth, Phan’s contribution to the production process, if any, would follow the 90-10 formula – e.g. assisting to delete all elements that appear to be obviously Chinese-like or Chinese-originated. His part will be done with this. Then come the audience with their own role to play.
Vietnamese people who wish The Tale of Lady Thị Kính to be a complete representation of Vietnamese culture are bearing a naïve desire. So are their American counterparts who believe that the story and performance of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính in and of itself should tell a complete tale about Vietnamese culture. There is no single work in the world that can do such a thing about any one culture. To have such an expectation is only destructive to the way people will perceive and enjoy cross-cultural works in general.
The best The Tale of Lady Thị Kính can do is to present some aspects of Vietnamese culture to get American audience acquainted with what is Vietnamese. And, to go against the strong tradition in western scientific research and studies that embed in people the belief that cultures could be understood through studies, it is worth a reminder that culture is something to be absorbed in your blood and not something to be understood. As long as you are an outsider studying it, you’re always an outsider looking in. The only way for people to understand culture is to accept it the way native people do living in it.
The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is an American opera by a Vietnamese American composer, written in Western style music, for a grand orchestra force, based on a thousand-year old Vietnamese story, targeting American audience. Accepting culture as it is to have a full experience of the opera would mean the audience could come to the performance with an open mind ready to take what is happening on the stage. If people walk out of the theater with an essence of what Vietnamese culture or iconography is about, it will have been a big success and P.Q. Phan said he would celebrate it.
Among things about Vietnamese culture that Phan expects people to see, one of the most beautiful is its sincerity and simplicity in representation. While some culture may be indulged in luxury and ceremonies to impress others, Vietnamese culture is all about daily living. The Vietnamese do things because of who they are instead of going to great lengths to cover that.
As far as iconography is concerned, a glimpse at the traditional village flag will do. It shows that folk people appreciate what is called ‘clash colors.’ The flag is composed of a number of strange colors in a way that is not necessarily deemed well coordinated in the West. But that is what folk people do – they put all the colors together in a way that they think beautiful. This may not have a deep meaning to it, but is satisfying to their eyes. Bright colors, therefore, more than anything else, are the trademark of Vietnamese culture. And we are definitely not talking about rich people’s culture. More often than not, people everywhere get wealthy through good fortune or good luck or commerce. There is no guarantee that they have an incredible understanding of the true meaning of their culture. Since they are wealthy, they need something to protect themselves and to reflect who they are, so they indulge in lavish ceremonies and materials. Armed with little knowledge of their true identity they tend to borrow other people’s identity and make it their own.
As a result, in the case of Việt Nam, Vietnamese vernacular culture is where people live true to their nature the most, and where one can hope to find more or less, hopefully more, unique characteristics of Vietnamese culture. This is the very place from which the story of Thị Kính originated – one that has been in existence for more than a thousand years and continues to gain unrelenting popularity.
Let’s hope that people everywhere are proud of and indulge in their folk culture, and that the audience will perceive Vietnamese culture as such on the premiere of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính.
© 2013 P.Q. Phan