Old favorite gets a new lease of life

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A once-popular form of Vietnamese folk theater is staging a comeback as a cabaret show

  Cai luong artists Thanh Tong (L) and Que Tran in a "˜Cai luong phong tra' show at Tieng Xua Cabaret in Ho Chi Minh City

It has been over a year since the Tieng Xua (old voice) Cabaret in Cao Thang Street hosted its first cai luong show.

At that time, the idea of Meritorious Artist Huu Quoc and his friend Tran Anh Khoa presenting the folk opera as a cabaret act was dismissed by the pundits as impractical since cai luong was deemed unsuitable for the cramped space of a nightclub.

Indeed, the first few shows were disheartening for the dedicated duo.

"Not many people came to watch us, at least until the fifth show. But we were determined to succeed so we changed the script and even offered special deals for audience members," Khoa told Vietweek.

Whatever they did must have worked because the audiences have been growing since then.

Cai luong, which can be roughly translated as "reformed theater" or "renovated theater" in English, is a form of modern folk opera in southern Vietnam. It is a blend of southern Vietnamese folk songs and ritualistic music, and incorporates elements of tuong (a classical form of theater based on Chinese opera), nha nhac (Hue court music) and modern Western drama.

Khoa, who is unsurprisingly a great fan of cai luong, says even he doubted the idea would succeed when he floated it.

"I just wanted to do something for the art. A cabaret setting is ideal for connecting the performers and the audience. The show's acceptance can be credited to the work we put in and the wholehearted support of our fans."

The dozen shows with different themes that are held every month have also reawakened the interest of other cai luong notables, some of whom have been involved in folk opera all their lives.

Huu Quoc, who has been there from the start, told Vietweek that he and his colleagues were happy to have a stage to perform cai luong.

"I was dubious when Khoa suggested the idea. Cai luong has had a setback in recent years as a lot of theaters have closed and there is less and less work for the artists. These days some of my colleagues have to sing at weddings, funerals and birthdays," he said.

Quoc said the show could be beguiling, even for the very young members of the audience, since it featured not only celebrated voices, but also their untold confidences.

"We have scripts, but the artists' emotional stories and confessions are what really captivate a cabaret audience in a way that doesn't happen in a theater."

In a show last June, Meritorious Artist Phuong Hang held the audience spellbound with her ability to sing for so long without taking a breath.

"Long-breath singing fascinates the audience when used at the appropriate time. But if I play a character that is in a bad mood or about to die, I absolutely cannot sing that way. It would sound ridiculous!" Hang told Tuoi Tre.

The following month saw a comeback by 80-year-old Bach Hue, who is famed as one of the greatest exponents of don ca tai tu, a genre of improvisational music that arose and spread across southern Vietnam in the 1920s.

Everybody there was touched by the old lady, stricken as she was by severe rheumatism and the after-effects of a broken femur, sitting on the small stage and telling her life story in her favorite musical genre. 

For much of her life, Hue devoted herself to don ca tai tu,  and taught quite a few aspiring artists. These days she lives in a nursing home with many other poor, retired stage artists of her age.

Tran Anh Khoa said that his show not only gave young, aspiring artists an opportunity to perform live, it also gave the elders of cai luong a second go in the spotlight.

Artist Thanh The told The Voice of Ho Chi Minh City that he rarely performed these days as his health was poor.

"I left the stage years ago and can no longer perform at my best. Furthermore, the cabaret is too luxurious and strange for cai luong, or so I thought. I was surprised to learn how much we were missed and still loved," he said. 

Huu Quoc said that, more than the profit (tickets for the show cost from VND200,000 to VND400,000), the cast members are heartened by the friendly handshakes, flowers, compliments and shouts of encouragement from the audience.

Khoa observed that, in a city where only two cai luong theaters were left, and shows were few and far between, young and old practitioners of the genre alike got a warm reception when they appeared at Tieng Xua.

Actor Hoang Duan, who is the cai luong director of Hung Dao Theater, said that the people who came to watch the cabaret were loyal to and conversant with the art.

"I think they love cai luong in its purest form. The problem with bringing it into the cabaret is that it's just a gimmicky solution. The art and its artists still need a true theater for performing the long plays and preserving the spirit within. We must think big if we are to revive cai luong," Duan told Vietweek. 

Seeing the success of Tieng Xua's Cabaret show, we lounge started hosting cai luong in August with a short piece by Ngoc Giau, a famous female artist since the 1960s.

After a year, Quoc and Khoa decided to move their show, now established as cai luong phong tra (cai luong in cabaret) to the Nam Quang Cabaret, which stands on Cach Mang Thang Tam Street where the old Nam Quang Theater was located.

On December 7, 2012 Nam Quang hosted a special show for the first birthday of Cai luong phong tra.

"The new place has a bigger stage and we are planning to have longer shows rather than only short excerpts as we have been doing. If we have a chance, even small, to nourish a love for cai luong, why not try?" Quoc said.

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