The awakening

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One young Australian woman embarks on an extraordinary journey to discover traditional Vietnamese performance arts and bring them to the world

Eleanor Clapham, a 21-year-old Australian, was the first expat who learned chèo and
tuồng (classical Vietnamese opera) which are neglected by many young Vietnamese artists

It was back in 2004 that Eleanor Clapham, a 21-year-old student of opera at the University of Wollongong in Australia, was told she did not have what it takes to become an opera singer.

"It was true. I didn't love opera; I had no real passion for it. I liked it a lot but I wasn't obsessed with it," Clapham recalls.

Everything was to change, however, when, that year, a Vietnamese-Australian visited her school and performed tu^ng. This was the first time Eleanor had seen a performance of classical Vietnamese opera, formed in the 12th century.

And it was this performance that brought the young Australian all the way to Vietnam to become the first foreigner ever to learn and perform both tu^ng and chèo, an original synthesis of folk songs, dance and narration.

In Vietnam, she goes by the name Hoang Lan.

Learning the art

For a foreigner who barely understands Vietnamese, the ancient Vietnamese language used in most tuồing and chèo stories was harder to grasp than the modern language used in everyday conversations.

During her first few months of lessons in dancing, singing, acting and weapons training, Eleanor said her teacher had to communicate by writing instructions in Vietnamese.

"I remember whenever my teacher asked me "˜thuá»™c chưa' (Have you learnt the lyrics by heart yet?), I always said "˜chưa,' (no)."

She had someone translate the words in the tung stories and consulted a local linguistics professor to master the meaning of the ancient stories.

After a few months, she was able to perform some extracts from tuồng and chèo such as Xúy Vân gi di (Xuy Van Feigns Madness) and Ho Nguyet Co hoa cao (Ho Nguyet Co becomes a fox).

Eleanor said she was captivated by various elements of tuồng and chèo, as well as the stories and one, in particular, that tells the tale of a Vietnamese woman, many years ago, who vowed to live independently.

In 2006, the media spotlight was fixed on her for her first solo performance, which was broadcast nationwide. She was also selected to perform at APEC events.

Feeling the pressure of it all, however, she began to doubt herself and her abilities and departed the country soon afterwards, leaving the stage entirely.

Eleanor returned to Australia where she worked as a waitress. "My life had no drive, no passion, no meaning. It was like there was a hole inside me where a dream had once been," she recalls.

After a year in Australia, she was invited to perform tuồng and chèo in Singapore. "It felt like a miracle, like the world was trying to tell me I had unfinished business. When I was performing, I felt a feeling of happiness and satisfaction."

Making a comeback


Tickets for Hoang Lan's show can be bought at KOTO Restaurant, 59 Van Mieu Street, Hanoi. All the money raised will go toward the KOTO vocational training program for street and disadvantaged children in Vietnam.

It was this that led her to begin writing her own songs that combined pop music with all the things she loved about Vietnamese opera: the drums, the sword and fan movement, the Vietnamese instruments and the stories.

Now she is back in Vietnam for the second time to promote her album titled "The Awakening," which includes 12 pop songs with the elements of traditional Vietnamese opera.

She will perform these songs at her second solo performance in Vietnam on June 26 at the Hanoi Opera House which aims to raise funds for KOTO, a non-profit restaurant and vocational training for street and disadvantaged youth in Vietnam.

The album is her way of bringing tuồng and chèo to a larger audience.

"At first I thought my way was to go around the world and perform tuồng and chèo, but I found that the people who liked it were mostly artistic people. I wanted everyday people to experience the beauty of tuồng and chèo, normal people who just love music, movement and a good story.

She plans to hold performances in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth in Australia, and also in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang this year.

"I really hope that the audience will see that there are elements of the cool about tu^ng and chèo, like the drum and the sword movements," she said. "Maybe that will make them want to see this type of show once or twice a year."

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