Opera in Vietnam: Phantom of the Opera - Saigon Classical Music Group | Nhóm bạn yêu nhạc cổ điển Sài Gòn
Classical Romance | Giới thiệu tác phẩm
Nguyễn Tấn Anh

Opera in Vietnam: Phantom of the Opera

Written and submitted to World Opera Day

In Vietnam, to many an audience, A. L. Webber’s biggest musical number is identical with opera for two reasons. Number one, Christine Daaé’s soprano delivery. Number two, much more simply, it has opera in the title. Perhaps a piece of debris left upon a penetration through the language barriers in the country, the term opera means both an opera, and matter of factually, the soprano voice. Think of the salinity in seawater, an aspect or a feature, amongst others, comes to both over- and under-represents everything the art form is typically known for. When(ever) a soprano talent is asked to lend her angelic high notes to a crossover number, always a TV competition show of the country’s popular music, “giọng opera” (translated: the operatic voice) is conjured atop of the showrunners and audiences’ mind alike, and hastily so. The winner of Season 1 The Masked Singer Vietnam was Ngọc Mai, a classically trained vocal instructor at the Conservatory turned celebrity, who belted Bizet’s Habanera to her triumph. 

Vietnam, as far as the writers of this piece are concerned, has maintained the relationship with the art form of opera in what appears like a young girl – think of Christine Daaé – with an extravagant ceremonial dress worn only at special occasions. To date, 10 homegrown operas have been penned and publicly performed1To be precise, the latest opera and a diplomatic commission with the Japanese, Princess Anio will be premiered before the time we finish this piece, on September 22, 2023 in Hanoi. Based in Ho Chi Minh City, writers of this piece cannot physically attend, in addition to the ticket distribution typical of a diplomatic event..; the very first dated as far back as 1965 – Cô Sao (Miss Sao) by composer Đỗ Nhuận, and yet performances of European masterworks remain sporadic in terms of regularity and practicality. Decades have passed between the heyday of the last century’s 1960-70s and the 2010’s up-surgence until today. Despite (or because of) robust journalistic acclaim, the art form, and its limited runs upon appearance, looks more like spent fireworks than a public darling. 

Kaspar and Max to Wolf’s Glen, played respectively by Đào Mác and Phạm Trang in David Hermann’s Der Freischütz, a HBSO production in partnership with Goethe-Institut HCMC by © Son Tran

Opera stays dominantly an metropolitan offering, taking place only in Hanoi, the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City. In the latter, over the past 10 years (pandemic period included), owed largely to the extraordinary efforts and generosity from the Southern Office of Goethe-Institut, partnered productions with the municipal company, aka Ho Chi Minh City Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera (HBSO) provides the seemingly only official supply for opera lovers. Helmed by Franco-German regietheater director David Hermann – his works being Magic Flute (2014)2Strictly speaking, the production was originally funded by Norway’s Transposition Program and performed in English language until subsequent takeover of David Hermann’s production by the Goethe-Institut in 2016.., Der Freischütz (2018), Die Fledermaus (2017), and more recently an aspiring Anna-Sophie Weber – her take on Franz Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe was premiered in August 2023, such productions fall onto experimental side, also partly due to inherent constraints. Meanwhile, in Hanoi, a co-production by privately-owned Saigon Philharmonic Orchestra (SPO) and Vietnam National Opera and Ballet (VNOB) of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, commissioned by the Italian Embassy is not the exact stage premiere it boasts: one with interest can find on YouTube another production back in June 2000 batoned by Graham Sutcliffe, formerly British Embassy in Hanoi’s cultural attacché, albeit privately funded and exclusively attended. 

Opera collage: Yesterday’s Memory, co-directed by Anna Sophie Weber and David Hermann, stage design by Judith Philipp, a HBSO production in partnership with Goethe-Institut HCMC © Judith Philipp

The Vietnam National Opera and Ballet’s Choir and Opera was established in 1961 and home to a host of Russo-trained performers. After Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin being claimed as the first post-war European opera performed in Vietnam, the Vietnam-Soviet exchanges played a major role in sparking what was widely considered at the heyday of opera in Vietnam, spanning in less than two decades, from 1965 to 1980, with 3 premiered operas by Vietnamese composers. 

Hanoi Opera House, or Opéra de Hanoï, one of the only three built during the French colonial time in Vietnam, after originally serving French audience with Italo-Franco repertoire, has become a beacon of diversity and inclusivity, since the establishment of Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra in 1984. Examples being the 2005 co-funded production premiere of Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci by the Italian Embassy and British Embassy, or 2006 premier of Die Zauberflöte commissioned by the Austrian Embassy in Hanoi, the 2011 local interpretation of Bizet’s Carmen directed by the Swedish Helena Rohr, and the 2018 premiere of an interactive production of Ástor Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires batoned by the French conductor Philippe Lesburgueres. Later in 2016, Carmen had its premiere in Ho Chi Minh City, at the Saigon Opera House. 

On the news and beyond, the consistent message is to bring opera (and classical arts in general) to a wider public, but none of the actual works at the forefront (and with a proper action plan, and long term strategy) . With 468 seats, the 1898 work of the French architect Eugene Ferret, where Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila was debuted in 1900, Saigon Opera House is completely dwarfed in comparison with Dalat Opera House, which is 300km away, perching upon a touristy highland city, and where not a single opera production ever takes place. Having opera in its name does not guarantee a dedicated orchestral pit, let alone the potential for any imminent staging at all. 

In a more extreme case, public debate at least once centered around the necessity of another iconic opera house in the southern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, while by now the existing, iconic and historical building is far more widely visited by tourists from the outside than audiences to the inside. With the opera houses sharing their physical space with corporate, brands-packed tenants for non-musical events and popular music performances, the art form occupies a solid corner nestled amongst the popular, the oversaturated and the touristy functional.

Like with popular music, the local craze towards consumption is dominated by the most popular, the best known, the “Greatest Hits” (remember the 3.5 salinity above mentioned). But (or therefore) like with the majority of alternative cult(ural) establishments imported to the country, opera has never been popular enough, or transformative and latent enough to reach wider audiences. In a cultural happenstance where events serve reluctantly as the sole engine of attraction and publication, the educational role tasked upon by enthusiasts is similar to the process of desalination: it benefits only a voluntary few, not wider public. Furthermore, it feels like a tug of war fought by uninterested factions against each other: the elite trying to appear as common versus the common trying to become well versed with the West; the institutional inertia versus quasi-Quixotic mini-glory; even, perhaps, cultural gentrification versus postcolonial reimaginations. 

Franz Schubert’s Winterreise lecture and partly reinterpreted in Vietnamese language event, organized by From Alpha to Opera, with fund granted by Swiss Art Council Pro Helvetia, in partnership with Goethe-Institut HCMC; February 18, 2023 © WalPhoto

In Vietnam, opera beyond the art form and its functions feels almost like a fantasy of old. Erik the phantom, in Gaston Leroux’s concoction, learned his trick subaqueous breathing using a long reed from the local Tonkin pirates (historically, Commander Thám, the famous pirate chief mentioned in the Gaston Leroux’s book, the leader behind the 30-year Yên Thế Insurrection against the Pacification of Tonkin, formerly the French-colonized northern Vietnam, was assassinated in 1913, 03 years after the book’s first publication of in 1910), in a manner oddly similar to how the art form visited Vietnam, and… exeunt, retreating into…. Opened in 1911, Hanoi Opera House was modeled after the Palais Garnier, albeit by smaller scale, in what seems oddly like how the art form carried on its presence in the country: lurking magically in the dark. By now, the phantom is still there, inside the mind of opera enthusiasts in the country, regardless of background, class or nationality, and even more so, in a thin recess of the public mind. In the labyrinth where night is blind, the fantasies about the art form seem to thrive much more robustly than how it is perceived and received in reality. 

Christine Daaé falls in love with the talented Phantom, chooses the wealthy Viscount Raoul, but can only be with one at a time. One can hear Erik’s spirit in her operatic voice. Her ceremonial dress comes from Raoul.

About From Alpha to Opera

Since March 2018, after 6 ballets and 24 operas (and counting) being presented in Vietnamese subtitles, and oral presentation/lecture, the project From Alpha to Opera attempts to introduce the classical art forms, and opera in particular, by putting together events, occasionally partnered and sponsored by the generosity and enthusiasm from similarly interested parties as well as individuals. The local public has the opportunity to be entertained by worldwide, high quality productions (in HD format), fully subtitled in Vietnamese and English, accompanied by program notes and synopsis during screening; staged productions by establishments and professional creatives, the ones that otherwise would probably never get staged in the country from the modest efforts of but a few opera enthusiasts – neither institutional nor professional. With public attendance ranging from 60 to 200 (as of venues’ capacity) per event, and our major, fully licensed events held at big screen cinemas, we become the one and only provider of the art forms by this medium for the public, and still by the public to date.

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