Le Bich

We meet a tung opera performer and mask-maker in Hanoi

The history of tuồng opera – a traditional performance art in Vietnam – reportedly dates back to 1005. Also known as bội singing or luông tuồng, this genre has survived thanks to its ability to move and enchant audiences. A tuồng play blends music, acting and singing. In the past, performers wore masks. Today, in some places the masks have been replaced by  heavy makeup.

A tuồng opera veteran

 On a Friday evening, on the corner of Ma May and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, tuồng artist Nguyen Kim Ke stood in front of a rapt audience. Now in his seventies, Mr. Kim Ke spoke about his collection of paper tuồng masks and performed excerpts of classic tuồng plays. “I followed my father into acting and am the the third generation of my family to perform tuồng in Hanoi,” explained Mr. Kim Ke. For many decades he worked for the Lac Viet Theater, now called the Central Tuồng Theater, located on an old street named after the founding father of Vietnamese tuồng – Dao Duy Tu. Mr. Kim Ke fell in love with tuồng as a child. Seeing his potential, his father began to teach him this ancient art, concentrating on the ways the characters disguised and revealed themselves.

Upon his retirement from the stage, Mr. Kim Ke decided to concentrate on making tuồng masks. A tuồng actor learns to become someone else upon donning a mask or applying his or her face-paint. Mr. Kim Ke hopes that the paper masks he has made will serve as invaluable records for future generations. His masks are greatly admired. Today, many people buy them as decorations.

Ritual art

Tuồng artists perform highly stylized and exaggerated gestures. Their masks or face-paint is meant to express the core of their characters. Key tuồng characters include “The Loyal Man”, “Artful Man”, “Traitor” and “Flatterer”. To depict each character, Mr. Kim Ke uses different colors and brush strokes. With some sheets of paper, some brushes, water and just three colors of paint – red, white and black, Mr. Kim Ke can produce a huge range of tuồng characters. For example, “The Loyal Man” has a dark red face to portray his sincerity. Meanwhile, a black face with scary stripes and curved lines represents a cunning and gifted who dreams of deposing the king. Black faces always signify traitors.

“Using makeup, it is easy to fix mistakes,” explained Mr. Kim Ke. “Because my masks are colored with paint, I must wait for the paint to dry before I can add a fresh layer. In rainy weather the paint doesn’t absorb well, so I can’t work.”

He went on to explain that the masks and makeup worn in Chinese operas differ from those used in Vietnamese tuồng. “The Chinese masks are decorated with solid blocks of black, red or white. In a Vietnamese tuồng mask, the black is not as heavy but created from layers of dark grey to form a contoured effect. As a result the masks appear larger and more dreamy.”

 Thanks to his talent and profound knowledge of tuồng, Mr. Kim Ke is often invited by the University of Theater and Cinema to teach at the Folk Arts Faculty. This tuồng artist continues to paint masks in his little nest on Dao Duy Tu Street. “A performer and his mask are one,” says Mr. Kim Ke. “To perform tuồng you must have tuồng masks. They represent the values of tuồng.”

Despite the changes wrought by modern life, Mr. Kim Ke has retained his sincere love for this ancient art and is working hard to preserve Vietnamese tuồng.