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Last Professional Performer in the United States Demonstrates Vietnamese Classical Opera

Last Professional Performer in the United States Demonstrates Vietnamese Classical Opera

Mrs. Ngoc Bay gives exhibition of techniques of Hat Boi at UCLA.

Leslie Evans Email LeslieEvans

An appreciative audience gathered in a small auditorium of Schoenberg Hall on the UCLA campus February 25 to watch and listen to a demonstration of Hat Boi, Vietnamese classical opera, by Mrs. Ngoc Bay, the only professional Hat Boi performer in the United States. Mrs. Bay taught at the National Conservancy of Music in Saigon for 25 years. Her art is a combination of singing, acting, and dancing, using traditional tonal sounds, gestures, and steps. She appeared in a brilliant opera costume with an elaborate rhinestone headdress and many bead strings over a bright yellow silk base. She began her presentation by singing several short verses, which she had written out on large sheets of paper to show the pronunciation and tonality of the written script.

Speaking in Vietnamese with translation provided by UCLA lecturer in Vietnamese Chuc (Quyen Di) Bui, Mrs. Bay explained that she enrolled in the first national program in Vietnam to teach Hat Boi, at the National Conservatory of Music in Saigon in 1960, and studied there for four years. She was appointed to the faculty in 1967.

Mrs. Ngoc Bay next demonstrated the dance steps that go with the opera, performing brief excerpts from several traditional operatic tales. One was about a fox who is transformed into a woman, marries a man but leaves her husband for a lover who then deserts her. The jilted woman then returns to her place of origin and becomes a fox again.

Another story-dance was of a woman seeking her husband who has gone to battle. She goes to the front, but when she gets there decides to become a warrior herself.

A third was about a man who can lift very heavy things and how he defeated all of his enemies.

In the course of these dance stories Mrs. Bay added props to her performance. First came a long stick draped in a pink fringe. This, she said, represented a horse on which the dancer rides. Wooden swords were added for the military dances. Each gesture is stylized and meaningful, she said. A hand outstretched with the forefinger pointing upward means far away, while if the forefinger points downward it means nearby.

Mrs. Bay also demonstrated cadences on a drum used in the traditional Hat Boi performances. Hat Boi is called Tuong in the northern part of Vietnam, and has a 500-year history.  Its stories are taken from the history and mythology of Vietnam and China.  It originated as a court art, but is performed in today's world for popular audiences. Because of the popularity of more modern theatrical genres such as Cai Luong, Hat Boi, which involves esoteric conventions and symbolic expressions, has declined in recent years.

Mrs. Bay moved to the United States in 1992. She said there are only about 30 students of Hat Boi today at the National Conservatory of Music in Saigon, as well as some amateurs in the villages. When asked what she most wished for, she replied, "A student."

Mrs. Bay's visit to UCLA was cosponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies and the Department of Ethnomusicology.

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