Performing for the Gods

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It's that time of the year again, when man serenades, and god blesses.

During the first three lunar months of the year from February to April cai luong (modern folk opera originating in southern Vietnam) artists around the country move to the temples to serenade the gods and seek their blessings.

Hat chau, a musical form of divine worship, is a unique performance held in temples around the country, combining music and dance, devotion and performance.

The art has become an ideal environment for new artists to gain fame and promote cai luong.

Devotion

Ngoc Khanh, who organizes hat chau, said, "Temples have very limited budgets, so they can only pay the artists half or a third of their usual fees. We can't afford famous cai luong artists but we try to invite the best we can find."

Though the payment is little for cai luong stars, it is big money for upcoming artists.

According to Binh Tinh, a young cai luong performer, "Newer artists have a tough time breaking in. Those who are offered hat chau shows can earn a lot by performing in many places, especially during the cai luong off-season."

Vu Linh, a famous cai luong actor who performs every year, said, "I feel immersed in the holy atmosphere of the temples while performing hat chau. It's my way of expressing gratitude to the founder of cai luong."

Linh and other artists often perform hat chau for free in temples, even though the payments are already low.

According to well-known cai luong playwright Hoang Song Viet, hat chau requires greater effort and creativity from the performers.

"Instead of being given a script and time for rehearsal, the hat chau artists work together to compose lyrics and choreograph dances for each play," Viet said.

Every show is at least two hours long, and yet takes few days only of preparation. The artists create a historical storyline for the given theme. While in cai luong, several stories are tragic, hat chau plays always have happy endings and seek the blessings of the gods.

"Hat chau isn't performed in a theater or even on a stage like cai luong plays, but in temple courts," he said. "The artists overcome the challenges of limited space and resources because their audience consists of not just commoners but also the deities of the temple."

Hat chau was first performed as hat boi, classical theater based on Chinese opera. According to Viet, the decline of hat boi and rising popularity of cai luong led to the latter taking over temple performances in the 1920s.

A hat chau show has two ceremonies ton vuong (enthronement) worshipping male deities, and ton soai (elevation of the commander-in-chief) at the temple of goddesses. It is said that those chosen to play the role of kings and commander-in-chief receive blessings throughout the year, Viet explained.

Earlier, hat chau was performed only in the first to the third lunar month, but now it is popular even in the seventh, eighth, eleventh and twelfth months.

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