No curtain call for theatrical paradox

By Linh Do   December 4, 2019 | 08:42 am GMT+7
No curtain call for theatrical paradox
A performance at Hanoi Opera House. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Vietnam’s performing arts face a dilemma: artists lament the lack of suitable venues, yet existing theaters remain idle for lack of shows.

For years, local performing artists and media have faced the dilemma of having no big, state-of-the-art theaters, juxtaposed with the difficulty of drawing audiences to existing venues. 

With 71 existing theaters and performing arts venues nationwide, most seldom fully booked, it can’t be argued that Vietnam lacks theaters.

As of 2018, Hanoi boasted 20 venues under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism management, most in decent conditions and centrally located.   

However, many survive on government subsidies, additionally renting facilities to restaurants, coffee and karaoke shops.

Such vulgar commercialism of vacant cultural space has for years devoured communal culture houses to national theaters alike.

Artists like musician Nguyen Quoc Trung point out the lack of big venues as a major setback preventing local organizers reaching for the stars.      

In Hanoi, with the exception of Youth Theater on Ngo Thi Nham Street, most venues are focused elsewhere than their area of expertise.

Widely considered the capital’s best theater, the 108-year-old French-built Hanoi Opera House makes money by renting out its three-floor main auditorium to show organizers, charging about VND40 million ($1,724) per show, considered relatively reasonable.

Each month, however, the opera house is booked for only 15 days, featuring around eight programs, ranging from classical to pop music to poetry reading to hair-stylings ticketed at up to VND1 million ($43).

For big, commercial shows employing pop stars, Hanoi Opera House falls short because of its small size: under 1,000 seats. In Hanoi, there are only two large-scale venues: the 1,200-seat Cultural Friendship Palace, and National Convention Center with 3,800.

For many artists, the cultural palace is more suited to meetings and conferences or even TV shows rather than performing arts that require a more intimate and sophisticated sound experience.

According to stage director Huynh Phuc Thanh Nhan, the feelings evoked in artists and audiences during a theater performance is different from those associated with a convention center.

So, without good theaters, the cultural habit of visiting them may well be fading away, Nhan told local media.  

In September, Hanoi’s cultural palace, an icon of Soviet architecture, was burned down due to a technical error encountered amid repairs, tipping many show organizers in disarray.

Singer Quang Ha expressed shock at the fire that broke out a few hours before his "Irreplaceable" show, forcing him to a hotel. Equally surprised was singer Dam Vinh Hung whose own show was scheduled for October.

In HCMC, popular venues such as HCMC Opera House, Hoa Binh, Ben Thanh and Military theaters often suffer from overload as well as degraded technical conditions that can no longer meet show requirements.

Huynh Phuc Thanh Nhan says HCMC organizers have few choices. For shows under 500 people, other than conference venues, there is only one choice which is however always fully booked: HCMC Opera House.

Nhan explains the problem with most conference venues in HCMC is that their ceilings are only five meters high, which often inhibits necessary special effects.   

A pompous race to the bottom

In the past decade, to meet seemingly greater demand for large-scale venues, many cities and provinces have been vying to build newer and more impressive theaters.

Big venues have shot up in the towns of Ha Long, Nha Trang and Hoi An to serve one particular event or two, then lose out to a competitor with better lighting and screening equipment, though lacking the artistic appeal associated with cultivating experience, quality and prestige.

For instance, in 2009, a 3,600-seat theater costing VND10 billion ($432,000) was inaugurated in Tuy Hoa Town of the south central coastal province of Phu Yen to host the Sao Mai (Morning Star) National Television Singing Contest awards. The venue was even named "Sao Mai" in honor of its first hosting.

Northern Vinh Phuc Province also boasts one of the biggest symphony halls in Vietnam. Designed to rank among regional multifunctional opera houses, Vinh Phuc Theater costs VND775 billion ($33.46 million).

The main hall of Vinh Phuc Theater. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

Inside Vinh Phuc Theater. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

Since opening in 2006, however, the 1,000-seat theater has only hosted 15 major events, most them free and attracting a mere 100 audience members at most.

Ngo Duy Dong, vice director of Vinh Phuc Province’s Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism told local media the outcome was unexpected. "To attract audiences and become financially independent is a long process," he said, adding he hoped Vinh Phuc Theater would host at least one music or art program a month in future. 

Yet, even seasoned theater operators who run small and manageable stages struggle to attract audiences.

Among Western-styled drama and traditional folk opera such as cheo or tuong, the lack of good scripts and proliferation of entertainment alternatives on the Internet and TV are considered major causes.

In HCMC, drama theaters including People’s Artist Hong Van’s SuperBowl in Tan Binh District have failed to attract audiences, faced financial difficulties and had to shut down.

Anxious future for classical music

With many artist-run spaces shutting down due to a lack of support, and many artists lacking a space to perform, better government planning might be key.

Of all troupes under the culture ministry, only the 67-year-old Central Cai luong (Southern Folk Opera) Theater in Hanoi is yet to gain a functional stage of its own.  

Despite numerous pleas to the government, the troupe still works in a run-down building in a gritty Hanoi alley and has to rent venues to stage performances.

"We dream about our 1,200 sq.m spot on Hong Mai being suddenly rebuilt with several floors for us to work, rehearse and attract lovers of southern folk opera," People’s Artist Hoang Quynh Mai, vice director of Vietnam Cai luong Theater, told a recent press conference earlier this year.

The troupe produces two to three new, long and often popular southern folk operas each year, an achievement for traditional arts, and has received many national awards. In 2018, the troupe staged 130 performances and garnered near VND2 billion ($86,350) in ticket revenues.

In HCMC, southern folk opera artists also have a reason to feel hurt. In 2015, after a decade of preparation and reconstruction, the 59-year-old Tran Hung Dao Theater, a former shrine to southern folk opera during its 1960s heyday, was unveiled.

To the amazement of many, the rebuilt structure, which cost over VND132 billion ($5.7 million), had been so badly constructed it couldn’t be put to use.

According to well-known southern folk opera performers such as People’s Artist Tran Ngoc Giau and Kim Tu Long, among other miserable features, the auditorium is too small with only 600 seats, even smaller than the old theater with 1,000 seats, there is no room for an orchestra, the ceiling is too low, and the lighting and sound systems are misplaced.

So, for the past three years, instead of using the rebuilt structure, which now represents a mostly vacant and painful sight to southern folk opera lovers, show organizers have fallen back on familiar options such as Cong Nhan, Ben Thanh and Hoa Binh theaters. 

A better but similarly anxious future is awaiting classical music. Last October, in a controversial move, and after 20 years of planning and changing their minds, HCMC authorities finally approved a state-of-the-art venue for HCMC Ballet, Symphony Orchestra and Opera Theater (HBSO) in Thu Thiem New Urban Area in District 2.

While the troupe has long awaited the project to bear fruit, the theater, expected to boast 1,700 seats and cost VND1.51 trillion ($65.2 million), has drawn considerable public criticism due to the outlandish amount serving little else than elitist entertainment with many residents across Thu Thiem yet to be properly compensated for site removal.

Secretary of HCMC Central Party Committee Nguyen Thien Nhan has assured the public about the necessity of constructing the theater to serve the demands of a 10-million population as well as foster international activities.

The party secretary added the investment came from the sale of a piece of land on Le Duan Street in District 1 that had been allotted to the troupe many years before and had nothing to do with the municipal budget for land compensation. Nor does this amount take away from the much greater investments HCMC has made to build schools and hospitals, he further noted.

With construction scheduled to start next year, numerous policy-makers and artists have stressed the need to spend the money well by building a truly high-quality theater.

 
 
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