Cheo (popular opera) is one of Vietnam’s oldest and most popular folk traditions. It consists of folk songs performed with pantomime, instrumental music and dances, combined with sketches dealing with stories from legends, poetry, history or daily life. Cheo stories usually involve chiefs, heroes and maidens and mix romance, tragedy and comedy.
Cheo is believed to have originated in the 11th century, and has its roots in village festivals in the Red River Delta. Like many ancient performing arts it was an oral tradition, with stories composed by anonymous author-performers and orally “passed on” to fellow performers. The cheo drum was traditionally used like a church bell, to inform villagers that a cheo performance was about to take place; performances often took place on little more than a couple of straw mats in the village square.
Its stories traditionally focused on the common folk and mocked those in power, with plays often being used to expose injustices carried out against ordinary people. Hence it was often frowned upon by Vietnam’s ruling dynasties.
Although cheo theorist Luong The Vinh laid down set conventions for cheo in 1501, performances remained largely improvisational in nature, although during the French colonial period some practitioners, including Nguyen Dinh Nghi, attempted to modernise the form by dividing plays into acts and scenes and introducing scenery.
Like tuong, the post-liberation government saw cheo as a valuable piece of Vietnamese heritage and established the Vietnam Cheo Theatre in 1964 to research and perform cheo throughout the country.
Like tuong, cheo uses standard stock characters (usually a hero, a heroine and a clown) who are instantly recognisable to the audience, but its themes and performance styles are usually lighter than tuong. Cheo stories may sometimes be romantic or tragic, but the clown or buffoon is always there to comment on the action in an amusing or satirical way, as well as to mock pompous, ridiculous or dishonest characters. Using the language of the people, he provides a link between the performers and the audience.
Although cheo is possibly Vietnam’s most ancient art form, it can be easily adapted for contemporary audiences by adding modern stories to the more traditional music. Indeed, President Ho Chi Minh is now a popular character in cheo performances, and cheo troupes have also been involved in performing pieces designed to educate young people about the dangers of drug use and HIV/AIDS. Consequently, cheo is currently undergoing a revival and is proving popular not just in Vietnam but also with Vietnamese communities overseas and with foreign tourists.