Hat Tuong: a Traditional Vietnamese Musical Performance Art

Also called Hát Bội in Southern Vietnam, Hát Tuồng (or simply Tuồng) is a national classical theater in dramatic art form reflecting the country’s rich and unique culture. Being one of the oldest in the country, the art has existed since the late 12th century and is believed to be originally borrowed from Chinese opera performance techniques, improved, diversified and developed into a new form embodying Vietnamese characteristics and nature. The introduction of Tuồng to Vietnam springs from tales originating from the time of the Vietnam-Mongol conflict during the Yuan Dynasty where a known Chinese opera performer was held captive by the Vietnamese, whom the said prisoner was asked by the imperial court to impart his theater skills. That was believed to be the how Tuồng had its beginnings in Vietnam’s royal courts, to its elite community, and later on adapted by traveling troupes who entertained commoners. It didn’t take long for the art to become popular in the country, widely appreciated by the entire population, from peasants to the royalties alike.

Tuồng performances are highly stylized and employ a great deal of symbolization where technical mastery is required from the actors to clearly describe the individuality of the characters they portray. How the performers’ faces are painted is another important aspect for the audience to easily identify the character’s personality where a black curly beard, for instance, suggest that the character is fierce and aggressive; a dragon’s beard could signify a king or nobleman; a fox’s or goat’s beard may imply a cunning or dishonest trait; and a hairless character could mean a student or any youthful role. Costumes of Tuồng characters are typically elaborate and quite extravagant. The stage, likewise, is very sparse and the settings are suggested rather than portrayed. For example, a fight scene between two actors portray a battle of thousands of soldiers between two opposing camps; or an actor brandishing a whip conveys the image of a man mounted on a horseback; and an actor using an oar suggests that the scene is taking place at sea and the character is on board a sailing vessel. All these symbolic features combined, greatly attract the viewers and bring their imaginations to work.

Tuồng performances could also have several varieties as well as regional differences. Between Vietnam’s north, centre and south, the genre can also be classified into more traditional, academic Tuồng and more comical, satirical Tuồng. Though Tuồng is known to be an ancient art form, new stories and plots with more contemporary themes (such as the struggle for national independence) are constantly injected into the art so it remains relevant and popular with the Vietnamese people.