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Birth, enlightenment, nirvana


Dr. P Q Phin, composer and creator of the libretto for the Tale of Lady Thi Kihn. Buy Photos

The orchestra laced together a soft melody that reverberated up to the stage, where Mang Ong, alone, called for his daughter.

He turned his body and awaited Thi Kinh’s emergence through two panels of bamboo. The composer, various directors and photographers waited, too, at the first full dress rehearsal for “The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh,” the world’s first opera transcribed from a Vietnamese story.

When Sarah Ballman, one of two IU doctoral students cast as title role Thi Kinh, weaved through the bamboo panels with her magenta, yellow and olive green dress flowing behind her and an opened fan to her face, composer P.Q. Phan said he saw magic.

“When you have the right song, movement and light, it’s almost like you’re putting the two dimensions to the third dimension,” Phan said after her first appearance.

But the opera won’t materialize completely for him until its world premiere tonight.

With David Effron conducting, students from the Jacobs School of Music will condense hundreds of hours of work into a 115 minute-long piece tonight at the Musical Arts Center. Everyone from opera magazine editors to troupes will be there to see how “The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh” will add to IU Opera Theater’s 66-year-long history.

Among the attendees will be Phan, sitting with his wife as he anticipates what he’s bringing into the world.

“The moment I see people walk in and the curtain open, I’ll think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is happening.’ Like when a baby is being born,” Phan said. “At the end, I’ll know if it’s a boy or a girl.”

The Overture

When Wilfred C. Bain left Denton, Tex., for Bloomington in 1947, his main goal as the new dean of the IU School of Music — now the Jacobs School of Music — was to push opera to the school’s forefront.

Bringing in conservatories, orchestras and opera houses from Europe and the United States, Bain spent 26 years garnering international acclaim to the opera program. With the installation of the MAC in 1972, IU Opera Theater served as the only fully-functional company within a 200-mile radius from Bloomington, attracting attention from around the region.

Since the program’s inauguration in 1948, it has presented more than 20 world premieres, the last being Bernard Rands’s “Vincent” in 2011. Tonight, Phan’s “The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh” will claim that esteem.

A pursuer of folktales and fantasy stories since the age of 5, Phan didn’t know he’d one day spend six years of his life bringing one of his favorite stories to life in America.

Phan, 52, was born in Da Nang, Vietnam, where he grew up around hat chèo, a style of satirical musical theater that families perform during the off-season of farming to make extra money. One of the performances he loved was of the folktale “Quan Am Thi Kinh.” It tells the story of The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh, a young woman who endures multiple struggles before making an extreme decision that leads her to Nirvana.

It wasn’t until he came to the U.S. in 1982 and started studying Western opera that he truly appreciated hat chèo.

“The farther you go away, the more you want to look back where you originally came from,” Phan said.

He had hesitated to translate “Quan Am The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh” for almost 30 years since the idea came to him, but in April 2008, he finally felt ready.

Because of his emotional attachment to and knowledge of the folktale, Phan served as the librettist, even though composers often hire someone else to write the script. Waking up at 3 a.m., 15 days in a row, Phan translated the folktale and added original material to help it better suit an American audience.

“When you love something so much in the original form, you have tremendous respect for it,” Phan said of “Quan Am Thi Kinh.” “I waited until I knew I wouldn’t put shame to the original version.”

The end result was a 49-page libretto, a more than 300-page music score and a 115 minute-long opera, featuring five minutes of Vietnamese singing.

He worked to preserve Vietnam’s hat chèo culture, but also adapt the piece to Western opera traditions, wanting the piece to be appreciated for its universal messages of love, compassion and selfishness—not because of its exoticism.

“The story has a universal meaning,” Phan said. “The Vietnamese essence is only a bonus.”

The Acts

After IU approved the production in December 2011 and Phan made his final changes, he could relinquish the lead. But just as he was able to relax, the stage, costume, light and various other directors got to work.

Both stage director Vince Liotta and conductor Effron had been to Vietnam before, and because of their admiration for the country’s culture, they were both enthusiastic about the opera from the start.

But more than the opera’s story line, Effron said he was excited to work with something new. He has conducted more than 100 operas around the world, including a majority of the classic operas, and to him, the most exciting operas are those that have never before been done.

“Conducting something new brings a sense of excitement because it’s a whole different experience,” Effron said. “There’s no tradition behind it.”

Just as Effron will be the first conductor to lead the opera, Ballman will become the Western world’s first Thi Kinh.

When Ballman emerged through the bamboo panels for the first time at the dress rehearsal, where Phan saw magic, Liotta saw a small error.

“Let’s do that again,” Liotta called out in the middle of Ballman’s aria. “Let’s not get lost back there.”

She turned around and passed back through the panels to redo the scene, familiar with the drill.

Ballman, a mezzo-soprano, received her bachelor of music in voice from South Dakota State University, completed her masters in music and voice at IU and is currently working toward a Ph.D. She has played parts in more than 10 operas and performed a small part in a small-scale world premiere of a children’s opera, but tonight will be her first major premiere.

When she got the role in September 2013, she said she was excited at first. But once she started looking into the music, she realized it was very different from that in Western operas.

She said she realized the score would be “the most difficult music to learn in her entire life,” especially because the opera has never been done before.

“Its daunting to be the first because I don’t have anything from the past to go on,” Ballman said. “You don’t have something solid to grasp on — it’s kinda your own baby.

With nine other cast members, four “friends,” 37 choral members and 60 students in IU’s Philharmonic

Orchestra, Ballman is among a large group of music students working together on what will be many of their first world premieres.

Though IU opera directors today have many talented students from whom to choose, it hasn’t always been this way.

When Bain found himself lacking musicians for his first opera production, Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffman,” in 1948, he commissioned his wife to seek orchestra members and choristers from the local A&P supermarket. During the first few years of the program, it wasn’t uncommon for faculty to play roles.

Much has changed in the past 66 years.

Ballman is one of 190 students pursuing a degree in voice in the Jacobs School of Music, a school that has sent 35 alumni to the roster of what is considered the most prestigious opera house, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

The most any other institution around the world has sent is about 25.

Though Ballman has been singing since her dad started giving her voice lessons at a young age, she said she still gets the jitters before performances. But when the curtain rises tonight, she said she knows she’ll be ready.

“I’m not going to lie — I’m freaking out about it,” Ballman said a week before the performance. “I’m not ready right now for the curtain to go up, but I know by Friday, I’ll be fine.”

The Finale

At the end of the dress rehearsal, after all 51 cast members laced together a gentle harmony of “Nam Mo A Di Da Phat,” a Vietnamese phrase that roughly translates to “Halleluljah,” Phan stood up.

The performers hesitated with uncertainty as to what to do, some bowing and others exiting the stage, but Phan stood still, the only one in a room full of about 50 people, giving his cast a standing ovation.

He didn’t sit down until well into the encore.

When students, locals and opera critics funnel into the MAC tonight, Phan said he’ll be watching them through the doors — he doesn’t think anything about the experience will feel real to him until then.

But he said he feels ecstatic now, and because of his love of the music and story, he thinks he’ll feel equally incredible on opening night.

As for what he hopes audience members feel after the event, he said he isn’t asking for a lot — he thinks expecting the audience to admire his work is too much.

“I don’t think it’s my job to write an opera to impress people,” Phan said. “I want people to find one character they can root for and to remember one tune. That’s what makes a piece live forever.”

Follow reporter Amanda Arnold on Twitter @aMandolinz.

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