A Stunning Surprise

Saigon Opera HouseYesterday I was struggling to find the subject for my next blog post. I had just finished Alexander Maksik’s excellent short story, Deeper Winter, in the March issue of Harper’s, and I thought that might be it. It is an interesting story and the author is a friend whose work I admire and love to promote. But, the day took a different direction when a Vietnamese friend invited us out.

In the 6 years that we have been hanging around Vietnam we have attended a number of “performances” and most have been disappointing. We’ve seen water puppets in Hanoi, traditional dances in Hue, light shows in Hoi An, music recitals, visiting orchestras, school talent shows, Hard Rock Cafe grand openings, and holiday galas. None of them has captured our imaginations like the one last night.

Our friend didn’t supply any details about what we would see but she did say it was unique and she thought we would like it. She was on the mark.

The event’s venue was the Saigon Opera House or, as it is officially known, The Municipal Theater of HCMC, a building constructed in 1900 in the style of the Third French Republic (see above). It’s a grand building presiding over Lam Son Square in the center of old Saigon. The theater itself is always a surprise because it seats only 800 and takes up only 1/3 of the building’s interior. It was used as a theater until the French ouster and the division of the country in 1954 when it was converted to accommodate the Lower House of the Republic of Vietnam. It was restored to its original function as a theater in 1975 after the Fall of Saigon and restored architecturally in 1998. It’s an architectural treasure, but it’s a government building and suffers accordingly.

Last night’s event, The AO Show, is a mixed-media happening that combines dance, music, and theater elements. It is a concept piece in the best artistic sense. It is misleading to focus on the fact that it is a series of vignettes describing the transformation of modern Vietnamese society and its people. It’s not boring. It is equally misleading to say the it is reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil, but both things are true. The Director is Vietnamese-American, the Music Director and Training Director are both French-Vietnamese, and the Choreographer is a Vietnamese dancer trained in Japan. All of them have international theater credentials.


The show was developed in 2009 and has been performed a total of 217 times – most of them in Europe. It has never been performed in the United States. It would be criminal to miss it given the chance. The trailer is on YouTube. Be sure to watch it “full-screen.” Take a look now: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QLzzuOyzdo” title=”AO Show”>. It is hard to describe the energy, artistry, aesthetic, and creativity that combine to deliver a stunning theater experience. I hope Americans will have an opportunity to see it sometime soon. It would be a great addition to any contemporary dance or theater series. I’m going to to do my best to get the troupe to Seattle.

AO Show

Stunningly surprised in an alley in Saigon.

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