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Vietnamese Opera

Vietnamese Opera

I am sure I mentioned to you Thu An had been an opera singer. The type of opera is Cai Luong and is performed by troupes who travel the countryside. They give live performances at hamlets and villages. Cai Luong has fallen out of favor as a live performance for the citified masses who now prefer pop, rock and roll and everything else modern and western. Out in the boonies, Cai Luong can still draw everyone except the young guys who would rather shoot some billiards and drink beer.

I went to a Cai Luong opera during my trip. We traveled by motorbike south out of town and then west out on a secondary road. That road turned into a mere concrete ribbon and there, where it became a dirt road and across from the village community building, there was the Cai Luong stage. Imagine standard construction scaffolding erected on its side. Over that place loose planks and then erect a bamboo trellis. Hang three layers of curtains to set off the stage from the back stage and there you have it. Over the stage are hanging two microphones in fixed positions. Behind the curtain, the actors are putting on their costumes and makeup by the light of a single light bulb. Everything they have comes out of carry-on type bags which they carried on their motorbikes. Out in front, people from the local hamlets are arriving to the sound of drumming made on two oversized congo drums. With the smell of wood cook fires wafting through the area, the whole situation has the look and feel of skit night at a summer camp.

People were excited to be seeing Cai Luong. I was excited to be seeing Cai Luong. Once the people realized a white guy was in their presence they became just as excited to be seeing me. This village was deep in the heart of VC country outside Da Nang. Its possible they have never seen a Westerner.

The local gents wanted me to join them for tea in the community building. They were told I just got married to a Vietnamese Cai Luong singer. Everyone was happy but I wasn’t sure they wanted me to drink tea or maybe it was really beer. Maybe they wanted me to give them money, build a school or cure the plague. You just can’t be sure what people really want in Vietnam till they pop the question on you.

In the community building was a table and crew for collecting money for the performance and a big room where these guys had already been sitting. Setting on a perch in the corner was a benevolently smiling bust of Ho Chi Minh. On the wall were Certificates from the present government to local patriots for their service to a grateful nation during the great war of liberation. I looked at these guys and figured they were all old enough to have been VC during my first visit to this happy land. I accepted their gracious invitation to sit down and have a small cup of tea.

The tea was cold but the mood was jovial and the old boys were chatting with me as if I actually had a clue as to what they were talking about. When I confessed, they went right on anyway. At some point they gestured over to the money collecting operation. They looked pretty damned hopeful I was going to just jump up and drop a fifty on them. I acted really ignorant of their desires, took a few more sips of tea and got up. I shook everyone’s hands and walked out. The show was starting and this little dusty intersection in the middle of Indian Country was full up with about two hundred people.

Cai Luong is like any other opera I guess. There are a few musicians, a few singers and a story with a moral. This will be the only live entertainment these people will probably ever see until the Cai Luong comes around again. The music is played on a few classic Vietnamese instruments that make no sound familiar to the Western ear. Vietnamese is a tonal language to begin with but when it is sung at 150 db on a poor sound system, outside on the street, it is almost painful to listen to. Luckily the theme of the night is an ancient love triangle and if you can imagine you are watching mime you can follow it easily. Attached are three photos. The first is taken during our visit to Thu An’s friends house. They will be performing at this event. They are the two people directly next to Thu An. The second are these two people in costume and the last is Thu An and me. She put on her whole rig but didn’t perform. I have photos of the performance but they are still in my camera undeveloped.

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