The Highs and Lows of Vietnamese Opera

Published August 17 2015 in Episode 17

Unlike many of my friends who remember being sung to sleep by sweet lullabies, I grew up being lulled to sleep listening to cải lương or Vietnamese renovated opera. It has become intrinsically connected to my childhood memories and my Vietnamese identity.

A cải lương performance is full of details: rich storylines, vibrant costumes, and the ability of a performer to sing hundreds of words in one breath. Cải lương originated from đờn ca tài tử, or Amateur Musical Groups, that had transformed over the years to become a new genre called ca ra bộ (using exaggerated gestures and dialogue in performance) and continued to develop to create the theatrical art that is now called cải lương.  

Cải lương bears the imprints of colonial powers through Vietnamese history. Tiếng Trống Mê Linh or The Mê Linh Drums (originally sung by the late artist Thanh Nga, the queen of cải lương) is based on the lives of the legendary Trưng sisters who lead a victorious rebellion against the Chinese Han dynasty 2000 years ago. These performances often chronicled Việt Nam’s resistance, with plots depicting tales of legends, history and politics.

There are two forms of cải lương, ancient themes such as those in Tiếng Trống Mê Linh, and cải lương xã hội, or modern cải lương, with a modern setting, contemporary costumes and set pieces as familiar as your living room.  The most well-known modern cải lương is Chuyện Tình Lan và Diệp, or The Love Story of Lan and Điệp - a Romeo and Juliet type plot that has once been featured on every stage of cải lương, large and small.

I spoke to renowned artist Ngọc Huyền about the role of cải lương in our ever-changing society. Even after 30 years on the cải lương stage, she feels hopeful.

I left Việt Nam 12 years ago, but what I’ve heard from the various media sources and through my good friends who are stars of cải lương - they see that people do want to protect and preserve Vietnamese traditional performing arts. Cải lương personifies the national spirit of Việt Nam that we cannot lose. As long as Vietnamese language and culture still exist, cải lương will be long lived.

Cải lương is often used as a pejorative term to describe anything outdated. Ngọc Huyền says she is concerned that cải lương will fade with the memory of its loyal listeners.

“I recently visited Việt Nam, and  along with  new music genres, I still hear the sounds of vọng cổ (a Vietnamese opera style pattern). But I do see signs that people are fading away from cải lương stages, due to several factors. First, we live in an era with so many options for entertainment. Second, cải lương stages today are becoming scarce; even if there are theaters for cải lương, it is very costly. Furthermore, cải lương playwrights are old and outdated. There's essentially very minimal renovations on stage sets and equipment. The outdatedness led the loyal cải lương fans to fade away, and now they only listen to cải lương on video, instead of enjoying cải lương at a traditional theater.”

As cải lương began to fade at the end of the 20th century, many foreigners have pursued the art form as a way to connect with Việt Nam’s culture.

Regardless of your Vietnamese music preferences today, cải lương has claimed its place in Việt Nam’s cultural heritage after nearly one hundred years of development.