Le Thi Minh Ly
Director, Center for Research and Promotion of the Cultural Heritage of Vietnam

The hallowed musical art form known as Tuong or Boi—Vietnamese traditional opera—is one of Vietnam’s major classical performance genres. According to an important document from our early royal archive collection, while in battle with Mongol invasion forces in the thirteenth century, one of Vietnam’s greatest military heroes, Commander Tran Quoc Tuan of the Tran emperor’s army, captured a noted Chinese musical luminary named Ly Nguyen Cat. This artist was handed over General Tran Nhat Duat, and it is thanks to the general that the art of Tuong was introduced to Vietnam as a source of entertainment for the nation’s soldiers and officials.

The art of Tuong has gone through many changes during Vietnam’s long and dynamic history. Nowadays, there are only a few traditional Tuong performance groups. Most of these surviving troupes are found in the southern provinces of central Vietnam. The principal center of Tuong art is in Binh Dinh province, and the founding ancestor of Boi performance in Binh Dinh was Dao Duy Tu, a noted figure in Vietnamese history. Dao Duy Tu is renowned as a great military man, but he was born into a family with a long of tradition of expertise in the performing arts. While engaged in his military duties, Dao Duy Tu was also devoted to recruiting and supporting Tuong troupes and their work, so he is also considered an ancestor of modern Tuong.

Under the Nguyen dynasty, Dao Tan, another key contributor to the art of Tuong in Binh Dinh, set up a school for teaching and performing Tuong performance in Vinh Thanh village. He composed several original Vietnamese Tuong operas that are still part of today’s Tuong repertoire. All these works resound with the distinctive voice and vision of this remarkable Vietnamese composer.

Today, Binh Dinh is still a major site of this living art form. There are important performance centers, such as the Dao Tan Tuong theatre, and twelve amateur Tuong performance troupes, including Tay Son, An Nhon, Tuy Phuoc, and Truong An. But emigrants from the country’s central region have spread their art far and wide, and they have been active in bringing the Tuong performance genre to the far south of the country, where it has become a rich source of spiritual and artistic sustenance, both for those far from their birthplaces and for those born and bred in the south who have taken Tuong to their hearts as a rich and meaningful musical art form. One of the key remaining performance groups today is based in the south, in Vinh Long province. This group was invited to perform in the United States at the 2007 Smithsonian Institution Folklife Festival in Washington DC.

In this type of art, the face of each character is always painted very carefully before the performance. The colors used are mainly white, red, blue, or green, and black. The artists decorate their faces according to the characteristics of the roles they play. The two notable types of faces are white and stripy-patterned faces. The colors and patterns used on the faces have symbolic meanings and representations. Some examples of these follow: A white face symbolizes gentleness and quietness; red stands for wisdom, courage, and staunchness; a striped face signifies an ugly person with hot temper; a face with black, slanting eyes is the embodiment of unfaithfulness; a face with two red spots along the temples is another sign of a hot-tempered character; a face with black slanting eyes on red or green color shows strength and bravery; a grey face with black and white stripes means a flatterer; and a hatched face represents chicken-heartedness. Decorating the corners of the nose with a cloud-shaped line is necessary for the role of a king.

For any type of face, there is one common point: all the faces are painted with colors, except the area near the eyes. Some researchers consider a vestige of a mask-wearing tradition of from the earliest history of the genre. Others maintain that the area near the eyes remains blank because in a Tuong performance, the artists’ eyes need to express a wide range of attitudes and qualities to do full justice to the roles being played. For example, the eyes of a Mandarin of a district must be able to express the character’s craftiness and cunning ways, so the artists have to be able to show this effectively.

In Vietnam today, troupes such as Dong Thinh and those in Binh Dinh no longer exist. Despite this falling away from the traditional local performance troupes, the genre is very much a living and vibrant tradition in Vietnam. Training takes place at art schools and through performing arts troupes in centralized, state-supported institutions that bring performances and skills to the provinces. Thanks to the vigorous work of these institutions dedicated to the teaching and preserving of the art form, Tuong will remain a part of Vietnamese living heritage.