Today’s Doodle celebrates cải lương, a style of modern South Vietnamese folk opera, on the observance of Vietnam Stage Day, an annual celebration of the rich history of theater in the country. A blend of traditional and contemporary influences, cải lương combines opera with spoken drama to create a vibrant expression of Vietnamese culture and identity.
Loosely translated to “reformed theater,” the form evolved from the traditional Vietnamese opera called hát bội in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam at the turn of the 20th century. Accompanied by an orchestra containing traditional Vietnamese instruments like the đàn tranh (“six-string zither”), cải lương brings to life a wide range of stories, from ancient legends of monarchs and warriors to explorations of modern Vietnamese social themes. While the subject material may vary, one common element is the signature melancholic song structure called vọng cổ, which translates to “nostalgia for the past.”
One of the most iconic cải lương productions is “Tiếng Trống Mê Linh,” which translates roughly to “The Drum Sound of Mê Linh.” The historical play tells the true story of Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, two sisters who helped lead the fight for Vietnamese independence from the Chinese Han Dynasty in the 1st century. A classic of the artform, “Tiếng Trống Mê Linh” has been staged by many of Vietnam’s top cải lương performers since it first debuted in 1977.
Over a century after its birth, cải lương is still enjoyed today as one of the uniquely Vietnamese artforms and a vital link to the country’s history.