Betwixt Cambodia and the US: An Operatic Tale

There was no way the Angkor-era xylophone could play Him Sophy’s 21st century score.

Integrating Western harmonies and scales into ancient Cambodian music, the score was simply outside the reach of the classic Khmer roneat. So the opera’s production team invented a new one.

Boasting a second row of bars to fill in the missing notes, the specially adapted double roneat was unveiled last month during an or­chestral workshop in Phnom Penh for “Where Elephants Weep,” a Cambodian-American opera that resists easy classification.

The opera tells the story of Sam, a Cambodian refugee who returns to his native country in the mid-1990s after having become a successful music producer in the US. Loosely based on the seminal Khmer love story Tum Teav, the opera traces Sam’s journey as he tries to reconnect with his roots—only to fall in love with a Cam­bodian pop singer who is already betrothed.

Scheduled to debut in the US and Cambodia next year, the opera was born out of a collaborative partnership between Arn Chorn-Pond, 40, a Khmer Rouge refugee who was adopted by a US Christian minister, and John Burt, an American producer he met during the 1980s.

In 1998, Arn Chorn-Pond and Burt founded the NGO Cambo­dian Living Arts, with the mission of recuperating traditional music in the wake of the civil war.

In commissioning a contemporary opera, Cambodian Living Arts has sought to open these Cam­bodian traditions to the very cultural forces that threaten to oversha­dow them—Western musical styles that would, in turn, have to adapt to the score’s Cambodian roots.

The opera fuses styles ranging from Western rock, American musical theater and hip hop to traditional Cambodian lullabies, yike opera, wedding songs, and funeral music. Even cell phone ring tones have a place in the score-the villain answers his phone to a reincarnated tune of a Khmer Rouge propaganda song.

The opera’s protagonist rediscovers the family history he had left behind, encountering an elderly flute teacher who remembers his deceased parents. Meanwhile, Sam becomes increasingly entangled with his newfound love and her family, who threaten to drive the young lovers apart. Ultimately, the lovers decide to go their separate ways.

Burt considers the production’s closest artistic relatives to be Cambodian folk opera, yike, and American musical theater. Cambodian composer Him Sophy cites Andrew Lloyd Webber and the musical “Rent” as works he listened to in the composition process. At the same time, Burt said, “It’s rock opera in the sense that it’s bigger than life.”

The hybrid orchestra-four traditional musicians and a three-piece Western rock band, to be expanded to a 10-piece ensemble and Western classical string quartet-put some of its efforts on display last month in the opera’s first presentation before an audience. The performance was held at the Cambodian Living Arts’ studio near the Chaktomuk Theater.

In the opera’s first major number, “Where Your Country Is,” a strident electric guitar ushers the protagonist Sam to the fore, who vents his frustrations about his return to Cambodia to his more spiritually grounded friend Dara.

The musical styles go back and forth in Sam and Dara’s duet, making hairpin turns between forward-charging rock and twangy, gong-laden instrumentals.

Other songs take a more nuanced approach to the East-West fusion. In “Noble Path,” Sam sings a reincarnated version of smot, Buddhist scripture typically chanted as funeral music. To Him Sophy’s knowledge, it is the first smot ever transcribed and sung in English.

For Scot Stafford, the opera’s musical director and a US national, the ideal singer for the sweeping score would be “a Cambodian-American, pop, R&B, Broadway-trained performer capable of highly virtuoustic singing-and who is fluent in English and Khmer.” Stafford added, with a laugh, that the team may have to compromise to find enough performers.

In late April 2007, “Where Elephants Weep” will receive a staged workshop production in Lowell, Massachusetts, home to the second-largest Cambodian-American population in the US; the opera is slated to premiere in Phnom Penh’s Chenla Theater in December 2007.

In Lowell, the three-day workshop production will be performed in the auditorium of an American high school where 34 percent of the students are Cambodian.

“These young people will give us lots of clues [as to] how the piece plays to an audience,” Burt said. “The music might be understood by an older audience, but it’s viscerally felt by a younger generation, like a rock and roll concert.”

Ultimately, the production’s central paradox-how to unify its disparate elements without losing the rich idiosyncrasies of each part-may prove to be its greatest draw.

“To the youth, I call it a rock opera. To the adults, I say it’s an opera that uses traditional musical instruments,” said Him Sophy. “Nobody knows what to call it-maybe in the end we’ll find out.”


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