New cai luong opera revisits nymph-poet

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The new cai luong opera Ba chua tho Nom (Queen of Nom Poetry) will give foreigners two rare opportunities at once: watching a traditional cai luong performance, and reading Ho Xuan Huong's poetry translated into English.

But the uniqueness of the show is not only about the bilingual brochure, it's also about how playwright Linh Huyen has come up with a new way of looking at Huong, one of Vietnam's most closely-examined cultural figures.

The Mekong Artists Company, headed by Huyen, chose the 18th century poetess as their subject because they wanted to tell the story of someone who was ahead of their time.

People in Huong's day did not understand either her personality or art and often looked down on her for being promiscuous because she was known to have taken many lovers.

In fact, many folk paintings of the writer feature her bare breasts and in provocative poses. And the poet did little to curb her reputation as her poems themselves are also full of eroticism.

Huyen said that Huong was smart, charming and at times illusively coy. But her bawdy and clever lyrics prompted most commentators to agree that Huong was still lonely despite her many lovers, especially during the two periods in her life in which she became a concubine.

"But as I woman, I think my play defends her and gives modern viewers a more sympathetic and honored look at Ho Xuan Huong, said Huyen.

Huyen spent eight months studying Huong and corresponding with British translator John Balaban, who has translated many of Huong's poems into English.

Balaban gave Huyen much of the research that went into his book "Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong.

Huyen said her studies inspired her to make Huong, the protagonist, a bold, northern woman.

The writer said the show also combines cai luong (southern opera) with other Vietnamese traditional arts like i(old stroller's singing), hat a dao (Vietnamese geisha's singing) and cheo (traditional operetta).

But she said that she was not afraid that the combination would spoil the quintessence of cai luong, which first originated in southern Vietnam over 100 years ago. She said she hoped her performance would be a rendezvous of several old art forms mastered by fine artists.

The purity of cai luong is important to her, she said.

"My cast will use traditional music instruments instead of the modern ones. Cai luong is a plain and common art.

Huyen's husband Mazano, an Italian painter, is in charge of designing the posters and backdrop for the performance.

Designer Si Hoang will supply the show's costumes inspired by Dong Ho (Woodblocks) and Tu Binh (Four panels) traditional paintings.

Famous northern cai luong artist Thanh Thanh Hien will portray Ho Xuan Huong. According to director Tran Minh Ngoc, Hien was chosen for her versatile talents in cai luong, hat xam, cheo and a dao, her love for Ho Xuan Huong and her focus as an artist.

The show will play a one-night engagement at Ho Chi Minh City Opera House on May 22.

Tickets will be on sale this week at Saigon Media Company (29 Ngo Thoi Nhiem St., District 3, HCMC) and the Opera House (7 Lam Son Square, HCMC) with prices ranging from VND150,000 to VND400,000.

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