Opera has long been the Sleeping Beauty of Vietnamese music. More often than not, the audience faces a “thorn wall” of extortionate ticket prices and elitist attitudes. As such, this form of art has only appealed to a niche audience.
Going back in time, opera was originally an exclusive pastime for aristocrats and other distinguished figures. With its spectacular stage sets and lavish costumes, opera was an indicator of wealth and prosperity of the royals. Therefore, it became a tool to impress foreign dignitaries and flaunt the host’s power.
In the 19th century, during the French colonial era, opera was introduced into Vietnam. The initial purpose was to cater French soldiers and their families. However, in the 20th century, this foreign form of art slowly found its way into the heart of the local population, especially those of high social status. The latter half of this century witnessed the rise of opera with numerous renowned artists: Lê Dung (soprano), Trần Hiếu (bass), to mention a few. Also worth noticing is that with foreign assistance (France, Russia and Germany), many qualified productions were available to the public such as “Orpheus and Eurydice”. This opera is based on a tragic Greek myth about the undying love of Orpheus, the son of Apollo, and Eurydice. Not only is it a hymn to love and passion but it is also a lesson about the worldly weaknesses of humankind.
Vietnamese opera reached its pinnacle in 1965 when “Cô Sao” was released. It was one of the first operas written by a Vietnamese playwright. The plot revolves around the journey of the eponymous protagonist, cô Sao. It was also a tribute to the strength and resilience of Vietnamese people. Above all, this masterpiece laid the foundation for the development of this sophisticated art form in Vietnam.
Now, with the rise of reality shows and social media, opera has been made more accessible to the public. Notwithstanding its controversial side effects, “Chinh phục đỉnh cao” (the Vietnamese version of “Popstar to OperaStar”) has, to some extent, eradicated the prejudice against opera as an “impenetrable genre”. This era has also unveiled a generation of burgeoning talents. Phạm Khánh Ngọc, most renowned for her rendition of “Queen of the Night”, brought Vietnam to the spotlight with her splendid achievement in the Singapore Lyric Opera – ASEAN Vocal Competition in 2016 (https://www.singaporeopera.com.sg/).
Khánh Ngọc isn’t alone. Many passionate young people share her ardent passion for opera: from the eminent Trần Nhật Minh, to the phenomenal Ninh Đức Hoàng Long. These artists are sowing the seeds of Vietnamese opera in the future.
Furthermore, opera production in Vietnam is becoming more and more ambitious. The idea of a opera “made in Vietnam” is no longer a farway vision, like the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby, but a feasible challenge. Der Freischütz – a classic opera based on the German folk tale about the legendary Freishütz, was performed at Saigon Opera House last July with a Vietnamese twist. The archery match, something uncommon in Vietnamese culture, was daringly replaced with a billiard match. Although public reaction is still somewhat divided, this bold move is another step on the ladder for opera in Vietnam.
In the classic fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty was eventually woken from her sleep by a kiss of true love. The story ended as the protagonists lived happily ever after. However, reality and the rose-tinted world of fairytales are often drastically different. Will opera find its safe haven, or will it fall into an enchanted slumber?