Letters from Hanoi

By Beverly Blankenship, March 6, 2011

Rush hour in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Photo B. Blankenship

Rush hour in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Photo B. Blankenship

When the festivities for the 1000 Year Founding of Hanoi were being planned, the Goethe Institute commissioned a new Music Theatre piece for the occasion, to be performed in the Vietnamese capital’s Opera House. Director Beverly Blankenship spent three months in Hanoi preparing and staging the ambitious new piece based on the myth of Parzival. These are her letters home.

The last two weeks in Berlin were so hectic, that I sometimes doubted that I would actually make it to Hanoi, prepared and ready to start directing. This is a huge project: an opera with actors and dancers in major roles on stage with singers singing at them…., new music, a totally unintelligible language, and an alien culture! We are awash with interpreters!

I found Hanoi alien and familiar at the same time. High rise buildings, mega traffic, modern clothes. Then suddenly: a small street. All the shops, every house, spills onto the footpath. Women, crouching at the gutter, cleaning vegetables and meat. Peasant women in conic hats carrying huge loads in yokes, houses and rooms for an entire family without windows, some of them only a meter and a half high, one toilet for a whole block of flats. The footpaths are completely clogged up with bikes and the Hanoians leading their private-public lives.

Then the traffic. The first time I was here, I screamed and yelped and thought death was certain. This time round I seem to have gotten used to the madness and am calculating survival routes through the maze of bikes and cars that enter a crossing from all sides all at once….. Driving along, you can see up to four people jammed on to a moped. Women workers carry mountainous loads of bricks and towering loads of boxes. Flat-screen TVs are balanced on the back of a moped without securing them with any form of rope.

Talk about the Wild East!!! Every one of them a cowboy! There are only a few checks on the game of “dare” in Hanoi traffic. But they do exist…

The police are not paid well. They earn their lunch money by standing at traffic lights, waiting for miscreants. They use their sticks freely, whacking their victims over the head if they don’t obey. Just when you think that you are in a piranha feeding-frenzy thingy, everyone suddenly calms down, virtually falling into orderly rows and tiptoeing past the enemy in beige. Luckily, there is always one idiot, who isn’t wearing his helmet, or who is on his mobile phone while driving, or bringing four of his helmet-less mates to town on his one little moped. That poor idiot gets fished out of the tiptoeing gang of mopeds: whack, stop, pay! The others gun their motors and escape. That moment of peace, of calm, while everyone is behaving well, is pure bliss!

You can tell that I have traffic on my mind. I have been home for two hours now, after driving my motorbike through peak-hour Hanoi traffic, but I am still sweating and the adrenalin is still coursing through my veins!

Street behind Villa Parziwahn. Photo Erich Wittenberg

Street behind Villa Parziwahn. Photo Erich Wittenberg

The weather is perfect. The locals complain of winter – and we from Northern Europe say: “Wow, better than last summer! Yes – sometimes you need to wear a long sleeved shirt. Yes – at night you need a light jacket for the ride home on the motorbike. Yes – you are not dripping with perspiration whenever you move!!!! Great!!!!” Last time we were here, there was a heat wave that had us Europeans literally sweating like pigs – I am surprised the Vietnamese recognised me this time round. Without all that sweat pouring off me! But the smog and haze are a bother. The air is acrid with smoke and fumes, so I can’t leave a window open at night, as I would just end up coughing the night away.

The creative team lives all together in a very Hanoi house. Since house owners pay tax according to the number of square meters a house covers, most of the owners built on very small parcels of land, but very high up. The houses are as narrow as in Amsterdam, but they look like Asian Fantasy Castles. I love it: turrets galore, balconies, terraces, a little tower here, a little tower there….enough to make most architects vomit. But I think its great!

I should introduce the rest of the crew:
Pierre Oser, the composer
Beverly Blankenship, director
Andreas Lungenschmied, stage and costume designer
Henning Paar, choreographer – he has just arrived and is creating magic!
Silvia Moedden, vocal coach

The house we share is in the fashionable Tay Ho District. Five bedrooms, stacked into five floors, with a huge terrace on top with a washing machine and clotheslines for drying clothes. Having a community like this is comforting. We are a kind of scout camp, scouting in the Art Jungle. It is very good for the project to be able to talk about the work as often as we meet around the kitchen table. Many ideas emerge from our dinner sessions.

However the house has its drawbacks – one of which is the lack of internet. I should be more precise: the intermittent lack of internet. Naturally we are in an emerging nation here in Vietnam. It is astonishing that we have internet at all! But every single inhabitant of our little theatre scout camp here spends an inordinate amount of time trying to get their emails, trying to Skype. At all hours of the day and/or night someone is crawling around the house, up stairs, down stairs, out onto the roof terrace, with new cables, new modems, new attempts to wrest communication out of the slipshod set-up.

Our house sits like an island in a sea of noise. Noise is Vietnam. Millions of bikes, cars honking incessantly, traffic, earplugs, traffic, earplugs, traffic. Then – the roosters and dogs. Five o´ clock in the morning is starting time for the competition as to who can crow loudest, longest and oftenest….The neighbourhood cockerels seem to be fighting birds. We hear and see no hens. At seven the Hanoi loudspeakers squawk with the voices of the Communist Party officials, exhorting the people in the neighbourhood to do a good day’s work. Sometimes they mention that, for instance, Mrs Van Nguyen has not paid her tax…after this public humiliation, Mrs Van Nguyen tends to pay up her tax very quickly. Otherwise we are sheltered from the Party machinations. The Goethe Institute bears the brunt of all the rules and bribes etc…As usual, theatre is a bit of a sheltered workshop, especially for guests.

Vietnam is young. Life roars through this city. At four-thirty in the afternoon, when the children come out of the kindergarten and schools, all you can do is gape. Small children are all picked up from school. And millions of them at once. On foot, on bicycles, on motorbikes. The children would not survive on their own in the melee of the traffic. You see mothers with three littlies packed on her motorbike clinging to her, all of them no helmets….

Hanoi Opera house – built in 1911 – an exact replica (albeit smaller) of the Old Paris Opera House. Photo B. Blankenship

Hanoi Opera house – built in 1911 – an exact replica (albeit smaller) of the Old Paris Opera House. Photo B. Blankenship

I could spend a few hours a day just watching. And soon, I will. Just now we are extremely busy getting the show on the road. All the performers are very willing. But an opera is an opera and a new opera is even more difficult. The standard of the professionals is not high, although there are a few very good performers among them. So it is lots of work.

 

BUT IT IS FUN! And my performers are goggle-eyed, when I get up and show them what I want, with absolutely no inhibitions and a million-volt energy. I am trampling the Asian Mask with both feet and they are loving it.

Our work is taking place in the midst of a society that is transforming itself at an astonishing speed. I am very privileged to be allowed to be part of this project.

Staging the opera
Yesterday, afternoon rehearsal.
Our lead actor, Lai, stands at the edge of the stage. He whispers that he can’t bear to be a human being anymore. There is too much pain in the world. Then he sinks to the ground and waits for death. The composer and the director are moved to tears.

What a triumph for a young Vietnamese actor.
The foreigners, who have come to Hanoi as honoured cultural experts, have been conquered by a Vietnamese performer!
Then the chorus starts singing and all the magic explodes.
The sublime paired with the ridiculous..

Our opera DER DURCH DAS TAL GEHT ( HE WHO CROSSES THE VALLEY) is a wonderful and strange creation. Singing, acting, dancing – all are combined to tell the story of Parzival, legendary hero of ancient myths, – and yes, Wagner’s world of convoluted Germanic Mysticism – in a new interpretation by Tankred Dorst. And us.

Why an opera in Vietnam?
Well – Pierre Oser, the composer, has worked in Vietnam before, always with great success. When the festivities for the 1000-Year Founding of Hanoi were being planned, Pierre was asked by the Goethe Institute if he would like to write a Music Theatre piece. He said yes and the Goethe Institute, the commissioning agent, has since been overwhelmed by the consequences of this proposal.

Every single Goethianer quails at the sight of one of us opera people, fearing more demands from the monster opera. The Goethe Institute surely did not envision the scale of the needs of this, the most complex of all the performing arts. Not just performers – we need make-up artists and stage managers and technicians and dressers and musicians and someone to run the sur-titles …and and and. The Goethe Institute Hanoi is slowly being flattened under the pressure of opera-makers who calmly demand a legion of technicians.

Dancers in the dressingroom. Photo B. Blankenship

Dancers in the dressingroom. Photo B. Blankenship

By the way, the Goethe Institute is not the only foreign agency that thinks that Vietnam needs opera. The Austrians, the Swedes, the French – each and every one of them have produced operas here in Hanoi at the picturesque Opera House from colonial days. The Opera House is an exact copy of the Old Opera in Paris, but it has not seen many opera performances. The French officers preferred ‘girlie’ shows with Asian Beauties dressed only in feathers. It took me a while to grasp this fact. I kept asking about the tradition of opera in Hanoi, what audiences were used to, the general reception of opera and so on….. Why wasn’t anyone giving me answers? Now I understand that the tradition of opera in Hanoi consists of the operas funded by the Austrians, the Swedes and the French. These operas are usually performed for a bemused, but polite Vietnamese audience. (Polite does not mean being on time, refraining from talking on mobile phones during the performance, or not allowing squealing children to tear through the auditorium.)

 

The Vietnamese might need better pay for their factory workers, better hospitals and fair trade regulations, but often what they get from the West is Art.

To be honest, at the beginning of our project I was unsure as you are if Hanoi really needed us, but I was not going to say it out loud. I wanted to go to Vietnam! I thought long and hard about ways of communicating with my alien Vietnamese audience. I set out to conquer their interest and their hearts, no matter how difficult and strange our European Myths might be in an Asian setting. I pushed my colleagues to think of communication foremost and let the art evolve from speaking to our audience’s hearts. They got mightily sick of me after a while. But it was worth it. And by now I think that everybody needs Art. Art crosses borders. Artists can carry new insights into another culture’s communities. The communication across borders and cultures might be the most important aspect of this venture!

The most surprising thing is – theatrical magic works on every stage! Once I enter the rehearsal room, the same rules apply as in the West. Bodies, emotions, space and movement combine to tell a story! We might not speak the same language, but the actors, the dancers and I can communicate and create theatre magic! Some of my Vietnamese colleagues can work magic – the ballet master is difficult to understand, but when he moves I know what he is trying to say. The two actors are like actors anywhere in the world – full of emotions, fluid, moody and very good at reaching out and grabbing the audience by the heart strings or making them laugh.

You will have noticed that I did not include the singers in that theatre magic list…
The poor singers are faced with two major difficulties. First problem: they have to sing in German.

I need to explain that in detail. The Vietnamese language is rich in tones and melodies. The same word can mean cucumber, pineapple and cow – depending on the melody of the spoken word. (When I say “Good morning” I might be accidentally saying “noodlesoup”. And “noodlesoup” also means going to a prostitute – the dangers of trying to speak Vietnamese are obvious!) The melody of spoken words needs to be correct, but they also have to be chosen to create a pleasing melodic composition. A good poem not only combines enchanting words and sentences, a good poem here also makes word-music in a way that we cannot appreciate.

While we were preparing the project the composer, Pierre, realised that he had a problem.

What if the libretto were changed beyond recognition by ad hoc translators who were trying to fit the official translation to Pierre´s music? Who would try to save the cow from being turned into a pineapple or cucumber by the sung melody? If the text was changed beyond recognition, then why have such a wonderful writer as Tankred Dorst, Grand Old Man of German Theatre, write the libretto?

The singers with Parzifal actor Lai. Photo B.Blankenship

The singers with Parzifal actor Lai. Photo B.Blankenship

Lots of discussions. And now we have a production in which the dialogue is in Vietnamese and the sung language is German. In Germany, many of the musicals from Anglo Territory operate the same way: sung text – English, spoken text – German. Since I cannot visit the alternative universe in which we decided to keep the whole opera in one language, I will never know which choice would have been better. Our current version definitely is not ideal.

 

Trials and tribulations
The Vietnamese have as many difficulties with sung German as we would have with sung Vietnamese. (Sung Vietnamese? I can barely count to ten after six weeks here without the entire company correcting every number!) I had to force the singers to give up their scores after three weeks of rehearsal. They will not sing out loud if they are afraid of making a mistake. This we can all understand. We would not do it either. And here – Vietnamese honour is at stake! Before Silvia, our vocal coach, arrived in Hanoi, I did not hear more than a few snatches of our opera really being sung. Our singers were not making music!!

The second difficulty facing the singers and musicians is the fact that our opera is a World Premiere! When the singers are involved in other opera projects funded by the West, they usually go looking for these operas on YouTube. On YouTube they have free access to opera! Does YouTube know of this offshoot activity? As the singers get paid 170 US Dollars a month, they do not have the funds to buy opera CDs. YouTube gives them access to western music at no cost. They sing along and learn their music!

Our opera does not exist on YouTube and so they could not learn it by listening. And to top it all – the power politics within the VNOB (Vietnamese Opera and Ballet Company) led to the appointment of a “Studienleiter” – a conductor who studies the music with the singers – whom the singers are boycotting! Oh well, it took us a few weeks to understand some of the dynamics at work. Almost like at home…! End result – the singers don’t know their music. And it has been strange having to push so hard for something so seemingly basic….

To survive in Hanoi one needs at least 500 Dollars a month, I am told. All the musicians, singers dancers, work endlessly doing gigs – turning up at fashion shows, hotel foyers, private functions to act, sing and dance in order to supplement their 170 dollars. Some of them succeed, are very talented or very conscientious, but some of them glide into despair. They all are quite exhausted.

And then I come along and want the singers to act, to feel, to move and be moved!
Their usual work consists of standing in rows at various functions and singing
a – of the Fatherland
b – of the virtues of Uncle Ho
c – of the honour and valour of the Vietnamese People whom no one will ever conquer.

They are not used to moving while singing, acting while singing, or portraying difficult emotional states while singing. IN GERMAN! NEW MUSIC! So the singers have the hardest job of all. And at the moment they are our weak link. Silvia wakes up at night yelling and pleading. Pierre, who WROTE THE NEW MUSIC, is looking quite bewildered and I have taken to cupping my ears at rehearsals, letting the poor things know that they are singing very off-tune…

Naturally, there are born performers amongst the singers. The stage is their home. They can portray anything. But most of the tenors live in tenor-land and have trouble with intonation. I think that Pierre and Silvia are plotting to have the worst tenor tied up and gagged. Touchingly, he is the most eager, bushy-tailed, bright-eyed of performers. He just can’t sing. And some of the women have sad eyes that nothing will light up…not even Silvia can make them laugh.

Lead charcater MERLIN played by 3 different performers: Dancer Hien, Singer Dung, Actor Hieu. Photo B. Blankenship

Lead charcater MERLIN played by 3 different performers: Dancer Hien, Singer Dung, Actor Hieu. Photo B. Blankenship

Silvia arrived two weeks after the start of rehearsals and rescued the whole project. As the singers were not opening their mouths, she worked on the language, gave them confidence and literally coached them into singing! One interesting aspect – since Vietnamese is full of stop sounds it isn’t easy to communicate the idea of legato singing – holding a continuous line of music is alien to the Vietnamese. The things you learn…

 

“A blanket…?”
“I know. I am sorry. But it is only 8 degrees Celsius in the opera house. I will catch my death.”
“You mean – a blanket. Should someone go get your blanket from your house?”
“My house? But how would they know which bedroom is mine? Just get me something to keep me warm!”

This inane dialogue could have gone on for a long time. Why had I called the director of the Goethe Institute asking for a blanket, for a heater, for anything to keep warm in the icy bowels of the Hanoi Opera House? Directors are not meant to solve those kinds of problems. Probably I was worried that yet another request from the opera crazies would be the straw that broke the back of Huong, our extraordinary Programme Co-ordinator. Our opera project was driving the small team of the Goethe to the edge of madness. Dear Huong was definitely having sleepless nights. How could I call her yet again?

Luckily, the director of the Goethe had no such scruples. She called the one person who could competently solve the blanket-thingy problem and an hour later I had a blanket, a heater and the offer of Huong’s green tea thermos. I spent the next ten hours huddled in front of my little heater, plotting the lighting states of our opera and then Huong bought more heaters for the singers and dancers and actors. As well as a warm meal every evening. It turned out that every one of our team had demanded warmth in some form from the Goethe Institute!

Before Hanoi, I had never directed dressed in full winter get-up before. The choreographer, Henning Paar, had on all of his shirts, plus two pairs of trousers and moved across the stage with the cumbersome grace of the Michelin Tyre Man. Everybody on and off stage wore woolly stuff, shawls and leg-warmers. Have you ever seen an orchestra playing in ski caps, shawls and parkas? I have. What a sight. The string section spent every break in the music breathing on their poor cold fingers. It felt like the post-war tales of the older generation, back then when you brought a lump of coal to pay for your ticket.

Hanoi does not have the resources for efficient heating. We slept with silk shawls wrapped around our heads, wishing we had alpine wool caps…like all the other Hanoians. We shivered in the mornings and shivered at night in our unheated kitchen. Everybody got quite sick, but as we took it in turns to miss rehearsals, the work went on and on and on. The entire team started to daydream about very expensive, and therefore heated, hotels, long hot baths, and some of us even used the cold as a great excuse to start drinking hot vodka…

Lead dancer Parzival Thanh. Photo B. Blankenship

Lead dancer Parzival Thanh. Photo B. Blankenship

Opening night and beyond
The last two weeks before the opening were hard. More so than usual. We descended on the Opera House, trying to impose European schedules and standards, trying to understand what exactly our assistants were translating. A world premiere, a new opera, an unprecedented experiment in working together no matter what barriers existed… We were, all of us, on unfamiliar terrain.

 

It got tense there for a while. It seemed like the singers would not make it. We could not get the orchestra to turn up all at once, the chief of the percussion group threw tantrums, storming out of rehearsals, taking the entire percussion group with her (another sleepless night for Huong), the make up team had not a clue what they were doing, the designer kept issuing orders of such complexity that the Vietnamese ground to halt trying to even understand what he wanted.

We took all the problems back home with us to our house which we called VILLA PARZIWAHN – in dedication to nasty old master Richard Wagner and the Vietnamese pronunciation of our lead character Parzival. The cold kitchen saw some very heated arguments…there were sleepless nights and wounded egos. We were lucky that our dramaturge, Christoph Maier-Gehring, arrived in mid- December. His cool outside assessment and his practical proposals saved many a situation.

I was so busy surviving the cold, the traffic, the being away from home, that it took me a while to realise that we were part of a minor miracle. One rehearsal most of the leads were missing for the usual Vietnamese reasons: exams, other jobs, singing for a General. Despite the fact that the singers did not have anyone giving them their cues THEY WENT ON. They did not sink. They kept going and they kept going without too many mistakes! That was the turning point! We were delirious with hope. After eight weeks of torture it looked like our singers were going to make it!

And, my friends, they all made it.

The singers sang and acted, the dancers shone with intelligence, the actors stole the show with a depth of feeling I had not dared hope for. Even the technicians got it right – after I had thrown out every special effect that involved technicians. But who was to know that so many effects and ideas, costumes and set pieces had fallen by the wayside? The audience only saw the heart of the opera and that was alive and moving and beating to the drum of two cultures merged into one.

The audience cried, Vietnamese and European alike. Well, okay, not all of them. But lots! What a triumph! The Vietnamese audience usually gets bored quickly and wanders about – or just leaves. But for us they stayed glued to their seats, even if they did not like it. And believe me, it was not an easy evening. So much pain and sadness, so much darkness on stage. Very Deutsch! And yet, they stayed and we were sold out.

The Vietnamese colleagues were euphoric, the Goethe darlings were beside themselves. Probably we all went a little mad after opening night. All that work! The Goethes groaning under a triple work load. Our Goethe helpers had seen so many rehearsals, gotten so involved, sweated and cried with us, navigated the difficult waters of the Vietnamese media and censorship. ( I actually was summoned before the censor – I felt like I was in a very bad film!!!!) They even survived the pre-opening influx of the Goethe top brass, who had come to check what exactly was going on in South East Asia….

 

The censor giving advice to director, Beverly Blankenship, - and recommending a few cuts! Photo B. Blankenship

The censor giving advice to director, Beverly Blankenship, - and recommending a few cuts! Photo B. Blankenship

Never before (and probably never again, now that they know what is involved) had an institution like the Goethe commissioned and produced an opera with only a few hands on deck! If our opera had not been a success, quite a few Goethe heads would have rolled, the knives were already out! So no wonder we would have danced on the tables after our successful opening night, if only we could have gotten the strength up to clamber on anything higher that a step…..

 

Only 3 performances, all up. So much work, so few shows, so expensive. Was it worth it?

Yes, yes, yes.

We proved an important point. We worked across cultures and were successful.
We communicated and created a magical work of art together. We learned from one another. We survived all the conflicts. We all were proud of our work. We all learned so much. We learned to see each other as human beings, each one of us distinct and unique. The reverberations of this project will go on for a long time.

We created a little bit of theatre history with our opera.

A little wonder: In poverty stricken Vietnam all the artists have agreed to work for nothing so the opera can have a second season some time in the future!

We spent over a week on Phu Quoc Island in the southwest of Vietnam before setting out home again. After cold old Hanoi it was bliss made up of hot sand, balsamic water, healing breezes under coconut palms, the cool and calm of tasteful bungalows and the sound of bamboo groves clacking in the wind. We listened to breaking waves during the day and cicadas at night. A short glimpse of paradise.

What a wonderful parting gift from Vietnam. Those sunny days will see us through the rest of winter in Berlin; the memories of all the colleagues and friends will make me smile in the days to come.

Vietnam was the wound of my youth, the war that could not be understood, that was fought in vain, for now Coca Cola rules under the one party dictatorship of the erstwhile “enemy”. Thinking about the loss of life, the trauma, the insanity of it all, I can find no words to describe what I feel.

All I know is that making opera is much better than making war.

Director and writer Beverly Blankenship grew up in Europe and the United States. She trained as an actress at the Max Reinhard Seminar in Vienna. After her first contract at the Salzburger Landestheater she went to Australia, where she started to direct and write. Beverly Blankenship returned to Europe in 1992 where her productions can now be seen at major Drama Theatres and Opera Houses.

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