Star Singer Hopes For a Renewal of Khmer Opera

An opera star from the 1960s wants to do her part to inspire a revival of a traditional Cambodian art form and help make Khmer culture strong well into the next century.

Chech Mach, 68, one of the renowned Khmer opera performers, will be recognized Friday night during a gala performance of the opera, “Saing Selchey,” which will be staged by the Royal Phnom Penh University opera troupe at Chaktomuk Theater.

Officials hope that the benefit performance and Chech Mach’s attendance will help spur a revitalization of Cambodia’s once-strong but now beleaguered traditional opera form known as Lakhoan Bassac.

The art form, which was founded in Kampuchea Krom in the Mekong River delta (now part of Vietnam), became popular in Phnom Penh in the 1930s and peaked in the 1960s.

“I am worried that Cambodian opera will vanish if the government doesn’t take more care,” Chech Mach said. “It will take time to bring Khmer opera back to the level it was in the 1960s.”

Arts officials echo the opera star’s sentiments.

“We have to show the real national identity of our drama,” said Proeung Chhieng, vice rector and the dean of choreographic arts at the Royal University of Fine Arts. “This [performance] can show the young people that it’s ours.”

Hang Soth, director of the culture and fine arts department in the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said that Khmer opera was on the verge of extinction after the Khmer Rouge regime ban­ned all kinds of traditional arts performances, and it has struggled against western cultural influences since a brief revival in the 1980s.

Twenty-four of 30 opera theaters have closed and 15 of 18 opera groups have folded since the mid-1980s as a result of lack of support and competition from Wes­tern-style entertainment such as videos and compact discs.

“We want to keep Lakhoan Bas­sac’s identity alive,” Hang Soth said.

Chech Mach said she was encouraged at age 10 to take part in Khmer opera by her mother. She said she learned the art form by watching and listening to other performers.

Five years later, the girl who had no formal schooling of the art form would take a starring role.

Regarded as a beautiful singer, 15-year-old Chech Mach was chosen in the mid-1940s to take a lead role alongside the golden-voiced Saing Sarun, the top actor at the time.

But she was formed to abandon performing during the Khmer Rouge years. Chech Mach’s opera career enjoyed a brief revival in the early 1980s.

She remembered that her group performed Khmer opera in Prey Veng, drawing hundreds of villagers.

Although a video show was also playing nearby, most of the people flocked to watch the opera, she said.

Chech Mach retired in 1991. Since retiring, she has lived in a modest wooden house along a dusty dirt road. She said she has sold traditional wine and firewood to earn a living and support her family.

But her voice still is strong, giving an indication of her glory days. To revitalize the art form today, artists need to be strongly encouraged and well-paid, officials said.

Culture officials also said that next year a boat will ferry performers to stage activities for villagers along the rivers in an effort to recapture interest in the lost art form. Friday night’s benefit is designed in part to fund that project, officials said.


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