In March, leading local contemporary artist Leang Seckon and New Zealand art-and-craft adviser Fleur Smith sent a letter to King Norodom Sihamoni to inform him of their plans to install a 200-meter mythical serpent upon the Siem Reap River to mark World Water Day on March 22.
The rattan-and-plastic Naga sculpture was to be part of the Rubbish Project that they had launched in 2006 as a volunteer effort of the arts community to raise awareness and protect the environment.
To their surprise, King Sihamoni’s reply arrived a day and a half after they delivered their letter.
“I…would like to express my praise for planning and organizing this rubbish art program, which carries a profound entertainment and educational message for everyone to pay more attention in the interest of the environment, clean water, hygiene, health, morality and dignity in society,” King Sihamoni wrote.
“Nothing can really explain how I felt when I received the King’s letter, since the King is [Cambodia’s] highest official as mentioned in our Constitution,” Leang Seckon said.
“His letter shows that he is strongly supporting artists, and that he is proud of us and encouraging development and creativity in contemporary arts,” he said.
Since he acceded to the throne in 2004, King Sihamoni, who is celebrating his 55th birthday today, has taken every opportunity to show his appreciation of the work of artists.
Khoun Vuthy, who teaches yike theatre at the Secondary School of Fine Arts, remembers the King’s warm tribute at a Mohori theater performance in which he appeared last year at the Chaktomuk Conference Hall.
“[The King] applauded loudly and stood up to congratulate us, and then he remained standing and kept applauding until the curtain had come down and hidden the stage to mark the end of the show,” Khoun Vuthy said.
When the China Disabled Persons’ Performing Art Troupe staged a show in Phnom Penh at the invitation of Unesco last year, King Sihamoni climbed on stage when the artists were taking a bow and shook hands with everyone and congratulated them on their performance.
“That was not planned,” said Teruo Jinnai, Unesco’s representative to Cambodia, adding that he was not going to stop the King. “When he meets artists of high quality…he shows his emotion,” he said of King Sihamoni.
Although he has no decision-making powers as Cambodia’s constitutional monarch, King Sihamoni has taken steps to help artists within his ability.
Following his unannounced visit to the Royal University of Fine Arts after the dance, music and circus-arts campus had moved to Russei Keo district in late 2005, the King provided three mini buses to transport students and teachers back and forth to the campus’ out of the way location.
“Nothing compares to his valuable donation [of the buses]…. He really understands the problems we are facing,” said Sam Pisey, a dance teacher at the Secondary School of Fine Arts on RUFA’s campus.
“He openly supports the arts and the school. Otherwise he would not have donated the buses…. With a King who is an artist himself, I seriously believe that our arts will go forward and develop,” she said.
King Sihamoni graduated from Prague’s Czech Academy of Performing Arts in Western classical ballet in 1975. He had arrived in Prague as a 9-year-old prince to go to primary school, and had started getting private ballet, piano and French lessons in addition to his regular classes two years later. A 1965 school report had described the young prince as having, for his age, a “highly superior knowledge of music, especially opera, and in the field of literature, dramatic arts and film.”
He intended to pursue doctorate studies in ballet or theater history at Prague’s Charles University had the war and conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s not plunged Cambodia into turmoil.
Then-Prince Sihamoni was Cambodia’s ambassador to Unesco in Paris when Fred Frumberg first met him in the early 1990s. “His love and compassion for his fellow artists back in Cambodia was one of the things that convinced me that my coming to Cambodia was the right thing for me to do,” he said.
Frumberg was production manager for the Paris Opera at the time and was thinking of coming to Cambodia as a Unesco volunteer to help the performing arts. “Any doubts I had about what I should do…were completely assuaged by this meeting that I had with [then-Prince Sihamoni].” Frumberg did serve as a Unesco volunteer and later created Amrita Performing Arts, an NGO that supports Cambodia’s performing arts and produces shows both in country and abroad.
Khoun Vuthy remembers meeting the future King Sihamoni at RUFA’s former north campus prior to his coronation.
“He asked me, ‘Would you, please, tell me where the theatre school is?’ I was not aware that he was the son of [then] King Norodom Sihanouk,” Khoun Vuthy said of the man who was visiting the campus anonymously that day.
“Then he introduced himself as Prince Sihamoni. I was surprised because I never expected to meet him in such simple circumstances,” Khoun Vuthy said.
Many artists view King Sihamoni as having a friend and ally in the Royal Palace.
“The King does not talk that much about the arts in public; he prefers to express his support in concrete gestures” such as the bus service he donated to RUFA, Khoun Vuthy said.
“I trust the King to be truly supportive of the arts in general since he is an artist himself,” said Buth Channa, a Lakhaon Kaol dancer and a teacher at the Secondary School of Fine Arts.
Buth Channa performed at the Palace on numerous occasions when King Sihamoni was receiving official guests.
“The King always made us feel warm and supported because he applauded all the time at the end of performances. Such congratulations for myself and the other artists, I never expected. This really surprised me and encouraged me to try my best to protect and preserve the arts.”