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Diva Works for Rebirth of Ancient Operas : Traditions: Ngoc Nuoi, a star in Vietnam, wants to form O.C. cai luong support group.

ARTS IN LITTLE SAIGON. A culture transplanted. Second in a series


Ngoc Nuoi was a girl of 14 when she was introduced to the ornate and studied ritual of the cai luong , the centuries-old Vietnamese art comparable in form to Western opera.

Through a friend who was studying the cai luong , she was approached to train at the major conservatory in Saigon where she was to work with some of the country's most famous teachers. Eventually she joined a top company, Tieng Chuong, and became one of its most prominent and revered stars.

But it was the final glory days of the art. The war interrupted, and under the victorious Communist government, the cai luong mostly languished, as did many forms of traditional culture. Ngoc still performed but with less and less frequency, and three years ago she emigrated to the United States to join her family.

"When she left Vietnam, she did not know what to expect," says Khoa Le, a composer who lives in Orange. (Le helped interpret an interview with Ngoc in Westminster, where she now lives.)

Once here, Ngoc said, she met others with whom she had performed, and many on the street recognized her as a celebrity from the old country. But she was disappointed to find that despite the many Vietnamese here, there is no group dedicated to the preservation and performance of the cai luong .

Like opera, it tells a story through performers who sing and act. Costumes and scenery are elaborate and stories are drawn from myth or from Vietnam's deep literary tradition.

Ngoc's favorite--its title translates as "The Heart of the Ocean"--concerns a poor servant who bears a daughter and, because she cannot afford to raise her, gives her to the wealthy family she works for, with the understanding that she never can acknowledge the child as her own.

Ngoc said she would like to help start a cai luong society in Orange County but the barriers are many. "That's her dream, but it's very hard because it costs so much, and we don't have a home stage," Le said.

Beyond that, most of the former cai luong performers Ngoc has met here are busy with new careers outside the arts and have little time to rehearse. "Even though they live in the area, they meet only on special occasions," she said. "They have to look to something else to earn their livelihood."

Still, she has hopes of starting something. "If we had a place to perform, I have a group of friends who would like to keep this art form alive," she said. "That's my dream."

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