P.Q. Phan
Photo: Jacobs School I.U.

The opera ‘The Tale of Lady Thị Kính,’ composed by Indiana University Jacobs School of Music faculty member P.Q. Phan, will make its world premiere at the music school in February 2014. Widely considered to be the first opera set in the Vietnamese culture, the production tells the traditional tale of Thị Kính, a compassionate and selfless girl who eventually attains Nirvana.

Falsely accused of attempting to kill her husband, Thị Kính disguises herself as a man and joins a Buddhist temple. There, she is falsely blamed for impregnating a young girl and is forced to leave the temple. As she goes, she discovers the baby abandoned at the gate, takes pity on the child and becomes a beggar to support it. She then dies, but due to her spirit of forgiveness and self-sacrifice, she enters the Pure Land and becomes the Compassionate Buddha.

There are many variations of the folktale, which dates back at least 1,000 years and appears in many different Buddhist traditions. It is also frequently re-told through traditional Vietnamese theater known as Hat Cheo.

‘The Tale of Lady Thị Kính’ is the second opera Phan has composed. Written over a span of about three years, the tale behind it is one that captivated him as a child growing up in Vietnam. However, composing the libretto in English required a delicate balance between maintaining accuracy to the well-known story and framing the tale for a Western audience.

“It took me a month to translate the tale, after which I began compiling different sources in the original Vietnamese,” Phan said. “I then used all of that background detail to create a version of the tale that is suitable for a traditional Western opera. For example, in most traditional Asian cultures, one would never interrupt a speaker. But Western audiences are used to a different cadence of conversation and assertiveness, so my libretto creates more interaction between characters.”

While Western audiences might consider the tale sad due to the myriad trials endured by Thị Kính, Phan’s interpretation of the folktale delves into the ideals behind the opera’s three main female roles: The virtuous Thị Kính, who forgives others many times over, represents perfection. The flirtatious Thị Mầu, who accuses the disguised Thị Kính of impregnating her, represents nonconformism. The capable wife of the town crier, whose talent for word play allows her to prove herself equal to the town’s chief, represents the power of all women. “It’s a literary and cultural way of thinking about women as they’re represented in Vietnamese culture,” Phan said. “The entire story is about the transcendental journey of a woman who becomes a Buddha. She hides her identity initially but becomes truly human when she’s willing to give another person a better life. It’s a journey, and the music I composed becomes more substantial as she moves through each step in her journey, uplifting the audience along with Thị Kính.”

‘The Tale of Lady Thị Kính’ premieres Feb. 7 at the Jacobs School of Music on the Indiana University Bloomington campus. Additional information, including how to purchase tickets, is available online.

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