Thursday, May 13, 2010

Singing in Vietnamese

In Act 1 scene 3 of Amelia, the title character and her mother, Amanda, go to Vietnam seeking answers about Dodge’s disappearance. The Vietnamese characters all sing in Vietnamese, a tonal language that provided the singers with quite a challenge.

Three of the performers who have to use the Vietnamese language—Karen Vuong (Trang), Museop Kim (Interpreter), and Karl Marx Reyes (Political Official)—shared with me a bit about their experiences. Neither Kim nor Reyes was overly familiar with Vietnamese prior to this production, though they both are fans of the food. “My favorite comfort food is Pho,” says Reyes, “That’s pretty much it.”

Vuong’s parents, though ethnically Chinese, were born in South Vietnam and lived there during the war. She had never learned the language, but once her parents discovered she’d be singing in Vietnamese, the language drills began. “They’re taskmasters!” says Vuong. “Every phone conversation turned into ‘Sing your lines for me!’ And believe me, the conversation would not continue until I had done so.”

Kim also had help with the language outside of rehearsal. One night he went to a Pho restaurant in Los Angeles and sat with the chef who recorded all of Kim’s lines, so he had an example to practice from. Once rehearsals began, they all had the help of language coach Cay Bach. He was “relentless,” says Reyes, “and I mean that in a very good way. He wanted us to be as authentic as possible.”

The Vietnam scene features an emotionally intense flashback (above), where Dodge’s capture is played out around Amelia and Amanda. And the intensity isn’t just felt by the audience, but by the singers too. “We all cried in rehearsal,” says Vuong, “and I think it’s safe to say we still cry when we’re on stage.”

In part, that’s a result of the well-formed characters that are director Stephen Wadsworth’s trademark. “Under Stephen’s guidance the singers all really reached into themselves for the scene,” says Vuong.

Each of these three singers worked to create complex characters. Vuong talked to family members who lived through the Vietnam War. “Once they found out about the show, a lot of stories started coming out of the woodwork,” she says. “They were invaluable to me in learning not only about my family’s history, but acted as a foundation for me to base my character on.” Reyes plays the “bad guy” in the scene. Throughout the rehearsal process, the character developed from a two-dimensional “blood-thirsty” guy to someone with more depth—someone with complex motivations who is just trying to do what he believes is right. As the Interpreter, Kim tried to strike a balance on his backstory, neither too involved nor too stoic. “I am standing in the middle of the Americans and the Vietnamese…[in between] today and the past.”

The scene is “emotionally draining yet dramatically fulfilling,” says Reyes. “I find that each audience member can relate to one or more of the figures onstage.” Vuong agrees: “It’s practically impossible not to be moved by it.”

Photos Credits. Top: Karen Vuong, David Won, Museop Kim, Luretta Bybee, and Kate Lindsey; Middle: Museop Kim, Karl Marx Reyes, Leodigario del Rosario, William Burden, and Alex Mansoori; Bottom: David Won and Karen Vuong. All photos © Rozarii Lynch.

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