From Italy with amore

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An Italian artist aims to be the man behind a successful Vietnamese woman

Italian artist Richard di San Marzano at home with his paintings.

He was born in England, studied painting in Australia and Italy, and worked for many years in France and the United States.

Then, seven years ago, Richard di San Marzano returned to a country where he had lived with his parents for seven years, beginning when he was seven years old.

His years as a child in Saigon made him feel like he was a Viet Kieu (Overseas Vietnamese) returning home, not a foreigner, Marzano said.

Three years after his return, a trip to Con Dao Island and his first exposure to cai luong (Vietnamese folk opera) proved to be a turning point or a point of no return.

He did not understand the performance, but was intrigued by it. So he met with Linh Huyen, a cai luong artist and playwright, and tried to learn more about the art. Her love and devotion to cai luong, as well as her desire to revive it won his heart. He decided to help make her dreams come true.

They got married in early 2008.

He still flitted between Vietnam and England, but decided his wife's project was important enough for him to settle down in the country.

He helped her establish the Mekong Artists Company, which focuses on training young performers in cai luong and organizing shows. Marzano also acts as an assistant to Huyen by giving her advice on stage design, designing promotional material and also acting as a photographer for her performances.

"Richard knows that as a playwright and a cai luong artist, I don't earn much money. But, he realizes what I'm doing carries a great spiritual value, so he supports me with all his heart," Huyen said.


Italian artist Richard di San Marzano with his wife, Linh Huyen, a cai luong artist and three children.

"It is only natural for me to support my wife and cai luong 110 percent after all, I have loved love opera and music in varied forms since my childhood," said Marzano.

It was true that everything started from his love for his wife, but he also feels that doing something to preserve traditional art forms is something that goes beyond common material values, he said.

His support and her determination culminated in the play Ba chua tho nom (The queen of Nom poetry) that premiered a year ago.

Dedicated to famous poetess Ho Xuan Huong (1772-1822), the play won critical acclaim for the way it smoothly introduced various art forms like cheo (traditional operetta), ca tru (an ancient genre of chamber music featuring female vocalists, with origins in northern Vietnam) and hat xam (a type of Vietnamese folk music once popular in the northern region).

The couple also won praise for investing over VND1 billion (US$48,614) of their own money in a cai luong play. Huyen was also dubbed "the woman reinventing cai luong

Tan Beo, a famous cai luong artist, said: "I respect them, because they dared to put money into cai luong when no one else would. I think cai luong needs such people to recover."

However, complete revival is still a long, difficult path that lies ahead. The play reportedly suffered losses of some VND800 million ($38,891).

The failure has not stopped Huyen and Marzano.

Last week, they opened the Kim Chau Theater, which presents cai luong in different formats to make the genre more appealing to urban audiences. For instance, while shows are tailored for children on Fridays, they are themed on social romance on Saturdays. And, on Sundays, they tell historical stories.

International tradition

While working hard to support his wife's dream, 59-year-old Marzano has not left behind his own art - abstract water colors.

The artist, whose works were selected as posters for two international music festivals - Umbria Jazz 1998 in Italy and the Chamber music festival El Paso 1998 in US, is now the curator of the Dogma Collection, an association that archives the works of Vietnamese Propaganda Art, used in posters and billboards conveying political messages, or information on national initiatives like prevention of HIV/AIDS, and mobilizing people to implement government policies. It was founded by Dominic Scriven, co-founder of investment group Dragon Capital.

Recently, Marzano and Scriven joined hands to launch the Dogma Prize, which challenges Vietnamese artists to make self-portraits.

Some local artists have welcomed this move saying it would give a fillip to an art that is yet to develop strongly in Vietnam.

"The prize will help encourage young and famous artists in Vietnamese contemporary art to pay attention to self-portraits," said artist Nhu Huy.

Marzano said he hopes the prize will encourage people to explore the art of self-portraiture further. He said self-portraiture holds a special place in the plastic arts.

"At its best, it gives insights, captured for eternity, into the artists at the moment of self expression, and this makes it a unique element in the history of art one that speaks to us directly of the artists themselves, whether famous, emerging or obscure," he said.

Winners of the Dogma Prize institute by Richard Marzano for the best self-portrait will be announced on July 12. The first prize is worth VND100 million ($4,861) and there are three other prizes worth VND10 million ($486.14) each.

The HCMC Fine Arts Museum has said it will organize an exhibition of works selected from the competition.

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