Lakhon Bassac and Lakhon Yike, two popular forms of Cambodian musical theater, survived the Khmer Rouge years, even though the regime killed up to 90 percent of the performers.
But now the art forms are facing new threats, and it’s not clear if they will pull through this time. The culprits? TV and karaoke.
The Royal University of Fine Arts had planned to accept a class of 30 students to study the two forms of musical theater this year. Proeung Chhieng, vice rector of the university, said only two students applied for Yike, while the Bassac program drew only one applicant.
“The problem is, when they finish they will have no jobs, and they know that,” Proeung Chhieng said.
Promising singers today face a choice: Do they head for the beer gardens and restaurants where they can earn $10 per night, right away, with no special training? Or do they study at the university for years in hopes of landing a dwindling number of jobs that pay no more than $18 to $20 per month?
Cambodia is not the only country whose musical theater is facing economic pressure. While lavish musical productions remain popular on New York’s Broadway, the price for a ticket has risen to $50 or $100 or even higher.
Cambodian musical productions are rooted in the countryside, where audiences of farmers rarely have more than a few hundred riel to spend on entertainment.
Yike is an ancient art form, dating from the 8th century, while Bassac is a more recent variation first seen in Cambodia in 1930, Proeung Chhieng said. Both involve music, dance and melodrama, with lavish costumes and scenery often based on the Reamkar, the Cambodian version of the Indian epic Ramayana.
Sek Savuth, the university’s vice rector in charge of the Bassac program, said the theatrical tradition dates from a slower-paced time, before Cambodia had movies, TV or video.
Proeung Chhieng says Bassac, modeled on Peking opera, was so named because troupes moved up and down the Bassac River during the dry season. The troupes can consist of more than 50 performers, musicians and stagehands, traveling in gypsy fashion from village to village.
A typical Bassac production does not start until 10 or 11 pm, after the day’s work is done for farming families. A stage and a generator-powered sound system are set up in a dry, stubbled rice field or other open space in the village. Crowds arrive with mats, food, pillows, children and grandparents in tow.
The material is part traditional and part improvisational, with stock characters and melodies that are sometimes adapted to suit current events or themes. The show goes on as long as the audience wants it to continue.
And if they like it, “people will watch until dawn the next day,” said TVK general director Mau Ayut. His station tapes performances for Saturday broadcasts, but he says their popularity is limited because many of the performers are aging.
“We need young and good-looking performers” to draw an audience, he said, adding that he believes a viewing market still exists. “People in the city might watch disco, but 90 percent of the people in the countryside will watch the play.”
Two other TV stations—Apsara and Bayon—also tape lakhon performances for later broadcast, with the help of government subsidies. The productions are not very expensive. Pang Seda, chief monk at Wat New Phnom Penh in Kompong Cham province, said he hired a troupe in March for about $256, and it was worth every dollar.
“People enjoyed themselves at the show,” he said. “About 2,000 people came to watch the play until 5 am the next day.”
The theatrical tradition made a strong comeback in the years after 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were driven from power.
That State of Cambodia government subsidized the art forms heavily, allowing performers to earn a living while they reassembled the repertoire nearly destroyed by the ultra-Maoist regime.
But by the mid-1980s, television and video were making inroads, and artists turned away from the traditional forms of theater to crank out videos and films, hoping to hit the big time.
Today young performers are increasingly choosing easy money over traditional culture. Between 1980 and 1986, RUFA graduated an average of 80 theater students a year; next year’s graduating class will include three Bassac students and 13 who majored in Yike.
Proueng Chhieng says heis optimistic that the popular music fad will pass, as others have before.
“What is not Khmer will not last,” he said. “In the 1960s, people loved the Twist dance, but in a short while they tired of it and returned to love [popular Cambodian singer] Sin Sisamuth.”
(Additional reporting by Jody McPhillips)