Silk snags

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Songwriter Quoc Bao (L) at a rehearsal of Lua in Ho Chi Minh City last weekend. Most of the participating artists are happy to accept minimal or no pay to support children with leukemia

Bui Quoc Bao is worried. With barely a week to go, ticket sales are slow for his pop oratorio concert to benefit children with leukemia.

Based on the 1996 novel Seta (Silk) by Italian writer Alessandro Baricco, Bao's oratorio, called Lua (Silk), is booked to open at We Cabaret in Ho Chi Minh City at 8:45 p.m. next Wednesday, August 28.

"We have a talented, devoted cast and crew, and an excellent, well-known story, yet we've sold few tickets so far," says the successful songwriter, mentor of aspiring and established musical artists, and record producer, who has been directing and preparing for the musical extravaganza since May.

"The more tickets are sold, the longer the patients can live," he says matter-of-factly.

The impressive cast includes veteran actor Thanh Loc, singers Ha Anh Tuan, Phuong Linh and Dong Lan, the Dung Dalat band, violinist Phuc Hanh, and musician Bao Chan, who had a string of hits in the last two decades.

A large musical composition for orchestra, choir and soloists, an oratorio is strictly a concert piece and often performed in church. Though it can occasionally be presented as opera, which is musical theater, there is generally little or no interaction between the characters, and no props or elaborate costumes. And while most oratorios tell stories from the Christian bible or cover other sacred topics, Lua deals with love, hatred, war, and adultery.

The novel, whose film adaptation with Keira Knightley and Michael Pitt was released in 2007, is set in the 19th century and tells the story of a silkworm merchant-turned-smuggler named Hervé who travels from France to Japan for his town's supply of silkworms after disease wipes out their African supply. While in Japan, he becomes obsessed with the concubine of a local baron.

Knowing that Hervé is in love with a Japanese woman, his wife Hélène still wants him to be happy as she loves him dearly. It's only when she dies of illness that Hervé realizes it was Hélène who was his true love.

"One of the interesting things about the story is that the characters seem weak for such a dramatic plot," says Bao. "Their portraits are viewed differently by different people, giving me more freedom to rewrite according to my understanding and artistic taste."

Instead of the classical form of oratorio, Bao decided to present the story in pop music, expecting that it would be more welcomed by  Vietnamese audience given their unfamiliarity with the oratorio.

"It is quite new in Vietnam," the 40-year-old producer tells Vietweek while rehearsing Lua at the 200-seat cabaret on Le Quy Don Street on August 17. "But as an artist, I should not limit myself or create in a certain genre of music only."

In just three months Bao wrote 50 new pieces for the oratorio and selected the best 20 for Lua with the help of his mentor Bao Chan. The focus of his story is no longer the husband but the wife, whom he considers the most interesting character of the novel.

It's not his first foray into a musical production on this scale. After the renowned composer Trinh Cong Son died in 2001, Bao produced a successful opera full of the late master's songs called Dem Than Thoai (legendary night) four years later.

He's the one who boasted "Son (Trinh Cong Son) stopped, but I am still moving forward" in interviews some years ago, for which he copped a lot of flack. He also said he was on a mission to "save the Vietnamese musical industry."

Bao is working on a tight budget for Lua, which is why he's limited the number of musical instruments to seven and chosen a small cabaret for his first oratorio.

The stage is small in comparison to a church's, but he believes it won't be detrimental to the quality of the show. Though an oratorio doesn't require acting, the cast will be wearing Japanese and French costumes of the period and there will be lighting effects to engage the audience in the story.

To the famous 52-year-old stage actor Thanh Loc, who plays a Japanese baron with many concubines, including the one loved by Hervé, the most interesting aspect of an oratorio and the absence of acting is that it frees the audience to let their imagination soar.

"I have faith that, thanks to Bao's name, the show will draw many people," says Loc, who made his showbiz debut in a band in the 1980s and performed in many cai luong plays before making a name for himself in general theater. He is also the deputy director of the IDECAF stage and has been on the jury of Vietnam's Got Talent since 2012.

"Oratorio through Lua is bound to be more approachable for a local audience," says Loc. He will sing three numbers, one of them a duet with Ho Trung Dung, who plays Hervé.

Phuong Linh, who was the runner up in the pop music category of the Sao Mai Singing Competition in 2005, views her role in Lua as something special in her singing career.

"The music is not ordinary, cheap pop stuff but complicated and as dramatic as the plot itself," says Linh. She has a reputation for duet singing with Ha Anh Tuan, which should serve the pair well as she will play Hélène while Tuan has been cast in the role of Balbadio, owner of a textile factory in Lavilledieu, France and an ardent admirer of the silk merchant's wife.

"My role requires that I not just sing but act wholeheartedly," says the 29-year-old singer.

Art for a worthy cause

All of the singers in Lua are known for their charity work, which is one reason they were chosen for their roles, besides their obvious talent.

Quoc Bao came up with the idea of a benefit concert for cancer kids after a visit early this year to the Blood Transfusion and Hematology Hospital in HCMC's District 5.

"Each young patient needs at least VND500,000 ($24) per day to pay for a blood transfusion, just to survive," says Bao, "If we don't hurry and make money for them as soon as possible, many will die young. That's why I cannot wait to raise more funds to stage Lua in a big, proper theater."

To help the children, Thanh Loc and some of the other singers will be performing for free while the others have agreed to accept a nominal payment for their services.

Loc himself released an album of children's songs in 2008 to raise money for cancer-stricken children at the Ho Chi Minh City Oncology Hospital. "I am one of the artists who are "˜titled but penniless.' Artists like me only have our own talent to get what we receive from the audience," says Loc. "So I don't have any problem giving my time for the unfortunate ones in society."

Bao expects if all the tickets are sold the show can help raise VND30 million (US$1,420) at least to benefit children with leukemia.

"Lua is the first project for the children, I am quite optimistic that there will be more Lua or other oratorio in the near future," Bao says. "We will find a way to present oratorios on a bigger stage or even in church after Lua."

FIRST POP ORATORIO IN VIETNAM

Though Lua is not the first Vietnamese oratorio, it might be the first in the style of pop music.

In 2001, Hanoi-based Doan Nho wrote and produced an oratorio based on the life of Emperor Ly Cong Uan (974-1028), who founded the Ly Dynasty and moved the capital from Hoa Lu to Thang Long (Hanoi nowadays) in 1010.

Then in May this year, Handel's Messiah was staged at the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House with a cast of international and local names as part of a Norwegian-Vietnamese project to promote Western classical music in Vietnam.

Tickets for Lua cost from VND600,000  to VND1,200,000 and are available at the performance venue, We Cabaret, 8 Le Quy Don Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.

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