The show must go on

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Artists keep a traditional opera art alive against great odds because they believe they were chosen to perform.


Drum beats counted down to the start of the performance and people flocked to the yard of an old temple in a village outside Ho Chi Minh City.
One man came up in an old-time colorful mandarin costume and heavy make-up. People had just begun to get engaged in his singing when a boy could not help himself from recognizing a star.
“He sells candy at the temple gate!”
And in seconds, the show turned into a comedy, except for the artist and his troupe.
They all know it is the bitter part of what looks like glamor, that they have to do any trivial job they can get to survive while indulging in the passion for a genre that is dying and only attracts bored people in rural areas.
Sticking to the belief that once they pick up the art, they are destined and duty bound. But to keep it alive is a tough thing to do under current circumstances, the artists said in a recent Tuoi Tre newspaper report.
Hat boi, a traditional opera genre, was a flourishing art form in southern Vietnam centuries ago, popular among all classes, from royal families to the poorest people.
It originated during the time of the Former Le Dynasty (980-1009), adapted from Chinese opera after a Chinese troupe came to perform in the north, and it moved south as Vietnamese kings expanded their territory.
The name, explain researchers, comes either from the fact that artists need to cram (bội) a lot of flags and feather into their costume while singing (hát). Another name is hat bo as each character has a distinctive set of clothes and gestures (bộ).
My Tho, capital town of the Mekong Delta’s Tien Giang Province, was a cradle of the art during the 17th and 18th centuries, but the golden days of dozens of art troupes acquiring fame and popularity across the southern region have gone.
Now, it has come down to a small group of artists who sleep on temple floors during their tour.
Bao An, a performer and manager of the Kim Loan Troupe, told Tuoi Tre during a recent performance trip to Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province that being in the art is a gift from the founder, so it’s hard for one to quit.
An also said their income has fallen far below that of other arts and is miniscule compared to what pop singers earn. Hat boi was replaced by cai luong (modern folk opera) in the early 20th century, and even that is fading.
But, for An, hat boi is such an intrinsic part of his life that “I knew it even before I was born.”
His parents were both famous performers who gave him the first lessons.
“My father taught me by crawling into the mosquito net, using his chest as the drum head and his rib part as the rim. And we just beat and danced the whole night.”
An said that’s how most artists learned as there was no school or books. The costumes, the way of singing and acting, were all passed down live.
His troupe thus includes members of two or three generations.
The 70-year-old, who has been performing hat boi for 54 years, said it takes much more work to put on a performance than cai luong, which takes one or two hours, or pop singing where a song takes around five minutes.
Hat boi tells ancient stories that include many scenes, many parts and each performance usually lasts four to six hours. There’re not many fans of it still alive but those who are there are very strict. We have to play it right and well if we want their appreciation,” An said.
One six-hour performance ended at 2 a.m., and the performers were paid VND200,000-350,000 (US$9.50-16.60) depending on their parts.
Linh Kieu and her husband, two artists in the show, said they were working on the resort island of Phu Quoc when they heard about the tour.
“We left everything to come back, paying a total VND4 million for travel fares and renting costumes. I’m not sure if we’re going to get paid VND3 million from this. But we just can’t stay out of it, it’s in our blood and bones,” Kieu said as she took turns with her husband to carry their 14-month-old baby while having porridge for supper after the show.
Truc Phuong, the “candy man” performer, said everyone needs to work at something to make ends meet during a tour.
“I brought along candy to sell before the show. When that boy pointed it out, the whole audience burst out laughing, but I just wanted to cry.”
Some tour would be easier when managers at the temple where they perform and sleep also treat them to lunch, Phuong said.
He said that the typical audience is also poor, so the tips are small, at VND5,000-10,000. “At least that can buy a baguette or a bowl of porridge before the next show.”
Once their colorful make-up is removed, the kings and queens in An’s troupe are either a street vendor, a potter, a funeral trumpeter, coffee shop waitress, or a xe om driver – doing jobs that giving them quick income and which they can put down anytime they are summoned for a show.
All of them have one explanation for their choice: “I was chosen, so I cannot quit.”
Minh Vang, an artist from My Tho who has performed for more than 30 years and played all main characters, fixes flat tyres as his day job.
Vang said his singing career cannot help him fend for his family and he had done several different jobs before settling on fixing flat tyres.
“I planned to retire many times, but then I wondered who would preserve the heritage.”
He said he’d be happy just to have people watch his performances.
An said Tien Giang used to have hat boi theaters, but they could not survive competition with modern musical stages, so the artists have to tour the southern countryside, using temples as their venues.
An said he has to book performances in at least four locations in a tour to cover the expenses.
Phuong Loan, an 18-year-old member, has been busy practicing for a coming tour to Ho Chi Minh City, when she will play a female military leader for the first time, after six years of performing as a maid.
Loan and her parents joined the troupe with her grandmother Huyen Nga who is now more than 60 years old.
Nga said she began following her artist parents to hat boi shows since she was 10.
“So it’s been four generations in my family, counting Loan. I hope she will keep it up on my behalf.”

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