If the average American were asked to identify the world's ten major cities when it comes to art and culture, I am confident Hanoi would not be on anyone's list. It should be.
Vietnam's National Symphony Orchestra and National Opera and Ballet company are based at the Hanoi Opera House. The construction of this historical site began in 1901 during the French colonial period. It is basically a reproduction of the renowned Paris Opera House Palais Garnier, which was completed in 1875. The acoustics, after over a century, remain superb. The building has both an air and feel of a period long since past. The only additions were the tall Christmas tree and extensive seasonal decorations that, I firmly believe, support my point that Santa Claus has to be a Socialist.
The Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra came into existence during 1959 and has consistently been performing since - no matter what the national circumstances may have been. Art, theatre, music, opera, ballet, dance are considered to be national treasures. Nina and I secured tickets for a concert and the ballet "Mystical Orient." This was a complete concert and ballet on the same night. Each ticket cost me about $10 which would be $5 for the National Symphony and $5 for the National Ballet. There were no taxes or convenience fees and the tickets were delivered cross town to me at no extra charge nor did the driver accept a tip as it was "part of the service."
It is hard for me to process that over 45 years ago, I was a professional musician and spent thousands of practice hours also playing Strauss, Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Verdi. This particular performance brought back many memories that well blended in with the Opera House's ghosts of the past.
The program opened with a Strauss work, "Fledermause." I also heard this performed in Vienna and I can honestly report that the musical differences between the concerts was minimal. This may surprise those that do not understand many Vietnamese musicians study at foreign conservatories; there are frequent foreign exchanges of musicians; famed global musicians are no strangers to the Vietnamese music scene. As evidence to this, at major jazz spots in Hanoi one can easily find pictures of Bill Clinton playing the saxophone at that venue with local musicians.
A Vietnamese concerto featured Hoang Ang and the traditional Sao (flute) was surprisingly highlighted by the haunting sound of the Timpani (kettle drums) reminiscent of Ron Bushy (Iron Butterfly) "In-a-Gadda-Da Vida" style.
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Puccini's "Madam Butterfly" was performed by Thang Long with the same emotion and passion we witnessed in Italy at their operatic performances.
After Ketelbey, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky meritorious artist Nguyen The Dan played the traditional K'ni (one stringed instrument). This was a harmonious blend of Western style classical music with a Vietnamese flavor. This was followed by Vanh Khuyen and Anh Vu singing "Brindisi" from the Verdi opera La Traviata. The range of these singers was phenomenal.
My final observation of the orchestra was the diversity of ages among the musicians. Some looked like university students while others looked retirement age. This was impressive indicating the arts and culture here are of inclusion and not exclusion. The public and community appreciation for artistic director Pham Anh Phuong and conductor Nguyen Thieu Hoa was also noted.
There was a needed intermission before the last portion of the extended night. No one can claim they did not get "their money's worth"! We are still in awe of the affordability of such esteemed cultural activities on a national scale.
The ballet "Scheherazade" featured the music of Nikolai Rimsky-Korakov (1888) based on the "Arabian Nights" tale where Sultan Schariar had such low esteem for women that he had them killed after their wedding night. Then Sultana Scheherzade appears with her creative ways to remain alive with such a chauvinist husband.
The ballet featured soloist Diem Quynh and Han Giang with choreography produced by Michel Forkin, Kieu Ngan, and Hong Phong. The brilliant and colorful costumes were designed by Nha Hang. The female dancers and supporting cast were amazingly sultry and artistically erotic. Those unfamiliar with modern day Vietnam may have difficulty visualizing the concept that women can be pleasingly sensual in an artistic manner dramatically opposed to how we condition females to act in The West.
Many of my ex-pat friends want to know where Vietnam gets so many talented actors and dancers. The answer can be found at any university. Take the Academy of Journalism and Communication, where we teach, for example. Apparently the number one problem with students is best expressed by the prohibitive sign: "No singing or dancing in buildings during class hours." Throughout the day and into the night one can find university students singing, playing musical instruments, and especially dancing anywhere and almost any time. Many Westerns cannot comprehend such a mindset; but, this is a "problem" we can all live with.