Cai Luong (roughly translated as “renovated theatre”) is a form of modern folk opera, particularly famous in Southern Vietnam. It is the convergence of southern Vietnamese folk songs, classical music, tuong (a Chinese-based classical theatre form) and modern spoken drama. It took origin in Southern Vietnam in the early 20th century and blossomed in the 1930s as a theatre of the middle class under the French colony. Listening to cai luong songs, one can feel their beautiful lyrics praising Vietnamese moral values. Hence, as time went by, cai luong has been preserved and become a national theatrical form desired by both Vietnamese people and foreign visitors.
What is Cai Luong?
Cai luong is more or less similar to Western operettas, yet easier to depict the characters’ feelings. It has about 20 main songs, but each may be retuned with different emotional tempos, making various versions. The principal supporting songs in cai luong is the vong co – (literally, “nostalgia for the past”) – a special type of singing with the background music of either the “dan tranh” (16-chord zither) or the guitar. Cai luong owes much of its success to the sweet voices of the cast, much appreciated by the audiences. Upon hearing the first bars of the desired vong co, the audience reacts with gasps of recognition and applause.
Perfomance of Cai Luong
There are normally two types, independent song performance and play performance. A Cai luong performance always includes dances, songs and music, whose influences is originally drawn from southern folk one. The music of Cai luong has so far been enriched with hundreds of new tunes. A cai luong orchestra mainly consists of guitars with concave frets. Regarding a Cai luong play, the scenes are changed frequently throughout the play. In a typical play, the actresses and actors would use a combination of regular spoken dialogues and “vong co” to express their thoughts and emotions.
Types of Cai Luong
There are mainly two types of Cai Luong: ancient cai luong and modern cai luong. The latter consists of stories of modern Vietnamese society. Its plots refer to romantic love stories blended with family or social relationships. The stories also explore cultural norms, social norms and other aspects of Vietnamese society. This type can be somehow described as tragedy but happy ended.
If you watch a play in which the actors and actresses dress old fashioned costumes, it is ancient cai luong. The plot is based on tales, legends or historical stories of the feudal system with ancient kings and warriors, while the plots come from numerous Chinese historical or ancient legends. Watching a vong co play, you may see that, in addition to regular speeches, several melodies are incorporated into the play. These melodies are reused through different plays; however the words are changed to fit the context.
Up to now, although cai luong had passed through the bright period but it still has a lot of loyal listeners. Throughout one hundred years of development, cai luong had claimed its important role in the Vietnamese traditional art cradle!
Should you are fond of tradition and culture, listening and exploring Cai Luong is such an ideal way to have good understanding. You can enjoy a cai luong play in the Ho Chi Minh Theatre or on the TV art programs.
Aside from “cai luong”, Southern Vietnam is pretty famous for its other types of folk music as well. Folk music in the South of Vietnam often talks about typical activities and on-going things in their daily life such as farming activities, or boys and girls talking to each other, getting acquainted and falling in love… Listening to folk music sang by locals is like taking a look in their everyday life through everyday words and simple melodies. It is the feeling of familiarity and nostalgia that make folk music in general so popular among the working class of Vietnamese. In Ho Chi Minh city, tourists can join a cruise on Saigon river by night tour to listen to folk music. These days, tours to Mekong delta from Ho Chi Minh city usually included listening to folk music in their itineraries as tourists highly enjoy this experience.