Called hat tuong in northern Vietnam and hat boi in southern Vietnam, Vietnamese opera is considered the classical operatic theater of Vietnam. Hat boi translates as "song and gesture," emphasizing the prominence of singing and acting in this highly stylized and refined performance art.
Various similarities to Chinese opera are obvious, although the degree of Chinese influence on the artistic development of Vietnamese opera is disputed. However, due to the proximity of the two nations and centuries of political and cultural influences from China, significant parallels in performance conventions and play content can be observed today. The first documented contact dates from the thirteenth century. In 1285, a Chinese opera troupe was captured by the Vietnamese army and subsequently engaged to teach its art to Vietnamese court performers under Emperor Tran Nhan Tong (1258–1308). In subsequent centuries, Vietnamese opera solidified as classical court entertainment, reaching its artistic zenith during the nineteenth century under the Nguyen dynasty (1802–1955). Two emperors especially supported the development of court opera: Gia Long (1762–1820), who had a permanent opera stage built in his palace; and his son, Emperor Minh Mang (1792–1841), who repeatedly invited Chinese performers to train his court troupe.
Clear similarities to Chinese opera can be seen in the division of plays into martial and civil categories, in the division of the characters into specific role types, in costuming, and in the use of highly stylized makeup for painted face characters. Staging conventions are also similar to Chinese opera: plays are performed on a basically bare stage with a painted backdrop and with a table and two chairs placed center stage. The most obvious differences can be found in the distinctly Vietnamese interpretation of the Chinese story material, the addition of indigenous historical and fictional tales, the use of the Vietnamese language, and the integration of a unique musical style originating from Champa, an early Hinduized kingdom in southern Vietnam. The orchestra, led by the lead drummer, consists of percussion instruments such as several
drums, clappers, gongs, and cymbals and melodic instruments consisting of a two-stringed fiddle, flute, lute, and a reed oboe. Another clear distinction is the absence of the use of "water-sleeves," a prominent feature in Chinese opera. Also, contrary to the practice of male actors portraying female characters in traditional Chinese opera, Vietnamese opera has always had female actors portray female characters.
A performer in a classic opera applies her makeup at the Dao Tan Theater in Qui Nhon. (PAPILLO/CORBIS)
After 1945, court support for Vietnamese opera collapsed. However, a few commercial troupes are still performing today. The Vietnamese government is promoting this classical art form, which, despite strong Chinese influences, has developed into a uniquely Vietnamese cultural treasure.
Brandon, James R., ed. (1993) Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Huynh, Khac Dung. (1970) Hat Bùi: Théâtre Traditionnel du Viet-nam. Saigon, Vietnam: Kim Lai An Quan.
Mackerras, Colin. (1987) "Theatre in Vietnam." Asian Theatre Journal 4, 1 (Spring 1987): 1–28.
Miettinen, Jukka. (1992) Classical Dance and Theatre in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
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