Keeping Cambodia’s Bassac Opera Alive

KRALANH DISTRICT, Siem Reap province – They arrived with an old truck loaded with heavy planks and metal poles. Before long, they were setting up a generator and assembling a sturdy stage, working under the burning sun of a recent Saturday afternoon with no whisper of a breeze to provide relief. 

By 5 p.m., the lights and sound system were nearly in place and the performers who doubled as stagehands were testing the numerous backdrops that would slide back and forth during the performance. In makeshift dressing rooms set up under the stage, others were unpacking with infinite care the sumptuous costumes and headgears that are the signature of Lahkaon Bassac theater in Cambodia.

The artists of the Reasmey Angkor Bassac (RAB) Opera Company were about to embark on a show that would last nearly five hours and attract more than 3,000 people. The venue was a paved stretch of country road reserved for the occasion in Kralanh district’s Kompong Thkov commune in Siem Reap province. The artists who are based in Serei Saophoan city, Banteay Meanchey province’s capital, had been commissioned by a local family to hold a free performance on January 26 for the neighborhood.

There was a time when people would have flocked to the performance site upon hearing that Bassac theater was going to be staged. But in today’s Cambodia, it takes more than that to make young people join in with the older audience. So young artists started the show with Cambodian pop songs, and comedy sketches peppered the evening in-between Bassac opera scenes. There was even a short Bollywood number that three actresses performed as if they were brought up to Indian dance.

This company of professionals, whose Bassac opera tradition goes back to the origins of this theater style in the 1930s, has weathered numerous economic crisis and changes in society’s tastes over its three decades of existence. However, had it not been for the support of a British fellow actress in 2008, the RAB might have disappeared.

The year had been especially difficult when Helena de Crespo, who was on a trip to Angkor, came across the performers in Siem Reap city as they were in the process of setting up their stage for a show that night. Through her interpreter, they discussed the difficulties they had been having that year and the fact that members of the company could barely feed themselves.

So when she returned home—she is now based in Portland, Oregon, on the west coast of the U.S.—Ms. de Crespo contacted actors’ unions and support groups both in the U.S. and England, and gave some one-woman shows to raise funds for them. “They were actors and I care about actors,” she said in a recent interview.

The International Performers’ Aid Trust in London came to the rescue and, with help provided by a few small film production and media companies in the U.S. and Great Britain plus the money obtained through Ms. Crespo’s performances, the RAB has been able to weather the storm and even take measures for the future.

This is not the first time that the actress—who performed on stage and in television dramas with the likes of Ingrid Bergman and George C. Scott in New York City, and Anthony Hopkins and Patrick Stewart in Great Britain—gets involved with actors in a foreign culture.

While she was teaching drama in Costa Rica for Unesco as a sabbatical of sorts in the late 1970s, she had been asked to train people and stage a show in one of the country’s poorest neighborhoods. She had refused at first, saying that she was a career actress and not a social scientist. But Ms. de Crespo eventually agreed, producing a play that was such a success that it ended up touring and making it possible for her to open the country’s first cultural center.

One of her projects with RAB is the construction of a small theater both to hold performances in the rainy season and to house the company’s artists who cannot afford homes. Located on a country road off National Road 5, about 20 km south of Serei Saophoan city, the open-air theater is being built with space for classes and rehearsals on the second level, and room for fruit trees and farm animals at the back so the artists can feed themselves in lean times.

And they’ll need it. RAB currently has a large family to support: nearly 80 artists plus their children.

In the dry season, local authorities or private individuals in northwestern Cambodia hire the company to perform. On January 26, while one group of its artists were staging the one-night show in Kompong Thkov commune, RAB’s second group was playing in Siem Reap city.

But in the rainy season, outdoor shows become difficult if not impossible. And this means no revenue for artists such as Earng Vong, who has been with the company for 15 years.

“I don’t have a house. This is it: Bassac theater is my rice field,” the father of five children said. “During the rainy season, I work as a moto-taxi driver.”

The same applies to Em Chantha, who has been with RAB for two decades and works as a farmhand in the rainy season, harvesting rice, corn or chili peppers to make ends meet, she said.

The provincial authorities are wholeheartedly supporting the company’s theater construction project. “This is a development that will bring Bassac theater back to life,” said Siv Saruon, director of the provincial Department of Culture and Fine Arts. “I thank [RAB’s director Len Choeun] as an individual for helping with this: It is serving the national policy of preserving our culture.”

And after all, this is not just any Bassac theater company: Originally from Kampuchea Krom, Mr. Choeun’s grandparents were among the artists who brought Bassac theater to Cambodia in the 1930s.

Lakhaon Bassac is a form of Cambodian theater that originated in the Bassac district of Kampuchea Krom among the Cambodian minority of southern Vietnam. It was developed at the pagoda Wat Khsach Kandal-Kampuchea Krom by a monk and his students, who toured Cambodia in the 1930s where they were an instant success. This musical form of theater, which was inspired by Chinese and Vietnamese opera, as illustrated by its lavish costumes and headgear, remained extremely popular throughout the 1960s and until the country was engulfed in civil war in the early 1970s.

Mr. Choeun, who had been trained into the family trade by his mother, formed the RAB in 1979 as soon as the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, he said. “I wanted to put on a performance in exchange for rice…because after Pol Pot, we didn’t have anything.”

The company soon became popular in the northern parts of the country. “The best year was 1986: We were very famous,” he said. “We sold tickets at 3 riel—a bowl of noodles cost 3 riel. We started with 28 people including musicians and cooks.”

By 1993, the company had made enough money to buy stage materials for performances and a truck to transport them—RAB still uses that truck today.

But since 2010, the situation has been quite difficult, Mr. Choeun said. “I think it’s because younger people only want to see something modern, like pop stars.” And now that they can use recorded music on loud speakers, many people don’t want to pay for a live show, no matter how good, the 60-year-old performer said.

What is more, holding free shows without being hired is no solution as passing the hat to collect contributions in the audience does not generate enough to cover expenses including the fees that local authorities charge.

The new theater in Serei Saophoan city will help remedy the situation as it will make it possible to perform both during the rainy season and when the company has no engagement elsewhere, Mr. Choeun noted. “I chose the site because it was where my parents played” and trained local students, he said. Already, the word has spread and people have made the link with his grandfather Ta Choeun’s Bassac theater style. “Right now, when people pass by my theater, they say ‘Oh, it’s Lakhaon Ta Cheoun.’”

The theater is more than half built. As soon as work is completed, Mr. Choeun intends to have free classes for students 13- to 15-years-old, working with the provincial Department of Culture and Fine Arts to determine the style and techniques that will be taught, he said.

In the meantime, Ms. de Crespo continues her efforts to raise funds. A year ago, she staged a one-woman show of British playwright Willy Russel’s “Shirley Valentine” in Phnom Penh to help pay for the theater. Ms. de Crespo had planned to perform again last month but, with the country in mourning for King Norodom Sihanouk, this has not been possible, she said.

Nevertheless Ms. de Crespo intends to keep on working on behalf of Mr. Choeun’s professional company so they can perform year-round and keep Bassac theater a vibrant art form in the country, she said.

It’s a simple matter of actors helping actors, she added.

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