The Khmer-language television network CTN has canceled its broadcast of the rock opera “Where Elephants Weep,” which was scheduled for tonight at 7:30 pm.
Following a letter of complaint sent Tuesday by the Supreme Sangha Council of Buddhist monks, the Ministry of Information ordered CTN not to air the critically acclaimed opera, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Wednesday.
CTN News Director Som Chhaya confirmed Wednesday that the broadcast had been postponed until further notice.
The complaint letter—which was sent to the Council of Ministers, the Senate, National Assembly, and the ministries of Interior, Culture, Information, and Cults and Religion—demands that the opera’s director, writer and performers apologize to Buddhist monks for their depiction of monks in the show.
The offending performance appears to concern actors in the opera who are dressed as Buddhist monks and singing.
According to Phnom Penh’s deputy chief monk Khem Son, who is the council’s adviser, “[the opera] really affects Cambodian monks’ values.”
Soeu Heng, literature vice dean at Preah Sihanouk Raj Buddhist University, was of the same opinion. He had read the show’s storyline on the Internet but not actually seen a performance of “Where Elephants Weep.” Khem Son said he had seen five minutes of the two-hour opera.
“Where Elephants Weep,” which premiered at Chenla Theater last month, is a New York-style musical centering on two Cambodians who became refugees after the Khmer Rouge regime.
“Two Cambodian grown men, raised in the USA, return to their homeland to serve time as monks as a way of connecting with the roots of their culture…. They struggle with tradition and the modern world,” explained John Burt, the show’s executive producer.
After seeing the show, several Cambodian government officials commented that the difficulty returnees face when trying to readapt to their former country “was a Cambodian story that needed to be told,” Burt wrote in an e-mail.
CTN filmed the show when it was staged in Chenla with the goal of airing it Dec 25 and today.
Last week’s television broadcast of the opera was introduced by Culture Ministry Secretary of State Thai Norak Satya who explained on the air that in an opera or musical, all dialogue is sung, said Prim Phloeun, the show’s public relations representative.
“His introduction was meant to make people unfamiliar with the format understand that the sung dialogue is the equivalent of spoken words in an opera,” he said.
Minister of Culture Him Chhem said he met with the opera’s music composer Him Sophy on Wednesday to discuss the controversy.
They agreed to meet with ministry and monks’ representatives after the Jan 7 holiday to discuss the supreme council’s concerns and whether broadcasting the show would be permitted at a later date, Him Chhem said.
“We will discuss and find a compromise,” Im Sophy said, adding that the complaint did not surprise him.
A musical is a new concept in Cambodia, which needs to be explained and put into context for those who are unfamiliar with it, he said.
But, he added, “People in general loved the show.”
The opera’s public relations representative Prim Phloeun said it was unfortunate that controversy is overshadowing developments in Cambodian performing arts.
“Many Cambodian artists, dancers and musicians had the opportunity to take part in a type of production that was new to them” and learn from the experience, he said.
Him Chhem added that in today’s era of globalization, one can expect new types of shows to be staged in the country.
“Everything cannot remain the same,” he said.