Hat Cheo: a Traditional Vietnamese Musical Performance Art

Traditionally performed by peasants inhabiting the Red River Delta villages during festivals and holidays, Hát Chèo is a distinct theatrical art with clearly defined characterization and plot. Ancient Vietnamese traditions of storytelling and folk singing greatly influenced the development of Chèo, of which, most of its appeal to the population is its characteristic of always embodying traditional values such as filial devotion, good morals, respect and courtesy, courage and justice. Due to its satirical and anti-establishment themes, the art wasn’t as popular to the royal courts as how it is to the commoners.

Definitely a more down-to-earth form of theatrical art compared to Tuồng, Chèo do not employ elaborate make-up, costumes and sparse stage settings. One aspect of Chèo that is similar to Tuồng is that it also use standard stock characters (usually a hero, a heroine and a clown) that are easily identified by the audience. Its themes and performance styles, however, are usually lighter. Chèo uses the language of common people, accompanied with proverbs, riddles and popular sayings, making it easier for the audience to connect with the performers and vice-versa. With every situation or character, there is a specific declamatory style or song that accompanies it. Traditionally, every performance is accompanied by an orchestra comprised of percussions, bamboo flutes, fiddles and lutes, of which, fiddles and percussions are deemed most important. Modern recreations now employ more instruments.

Chèo performances are often centered on romantic or tragic stories, but the clown or buffoon always adding comments on the action in an amusing or satirical way, as well as to mock pompous, ridiculous or dishonest characters injects humor to the plot but always translating a clear sense of humanity. With that, spectators are swayed with different emotions, moving them both to tears and laughter with the same story.

Chèo may possibly be Vietnam’s most ancient theatrical art form, but it can easily connect with contemporary audiences by infusing modern stories to traditional music. Consequently, Chèo is currently undergoing a revival and is growing in popularity not just in Vietnam but also in Vietnamese communities across the globe along with its now widening recognition by foreign tourists.