Khuon Sethisak dreams of singing Verdi’s “Othello” and getting from forte to pianissimo during a high C, which means nothing to almost any of his countrymen but would mean the world to Cambodia’s only opera singer.
“In Cambodia we don’t have any opera here, so I’m like one in the dark,” he said. “Mostly I perform for foreigners, but the royal family promotes me, and they love opera.”
At 35 years of age, he has trained in music at home and abroad for most of his life, including eight years in Russia, three years in the US and eight months in Italy.
When his family returned to Phnom Penh from Kompong Cham province in 1979, Khuon Sethisak began to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was trained as a musicologist and trumpet player during the French colonial period.
“When I was a child, after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime, they reopened the University of Fine Art,” he said. “I began to sing at 9 years old…. I performed all over the country, but with no voice training…we had a group, a children’s choir, and I was the soloist.”
Despite his frequent TV and radio appearances singing in his youth, Khuon Sethisak said he never expected to be a singer by profession.
After finishing high school in 1988 he was accepted to study music in Russia, but he spent his first six years there studying piano, composition and theory.
It wasn’t until his last two years in Russia that he fell in love with opera.
“It’s natural. You don’t use microphones…and when you sing opera, you use the energy of the whole body,” he said. “What I like about opera is the color of the voice. It’s just amazing, technically. Even if you can’t understand the words, you wonder about the voice.”
But he does understand the words of almost all the languages in which he sings: Italian, French, Russian, English and Khmer.
“I understand all except German, but not like a professional translator,” he said. “You should understand what you sing.”
But understanding opera requires more than vocabulary. Operas are epics of love and death, and great singers find in themselves and their voices the raw humanity of their characters.
In a recording of “Nessun Dorma,” meaning “no one sleeps”—an aria from Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Turandot”—Khuon Sethisak’s voice is graceful without being too delicate as he plays Calaf, the “unknown prince” who awaits either marriage or death.
Reared on Khmer music, he sang traditional songs as a child and then the works of Sin Sisamuth when he reached adolescence.
He still occasionally sings traditional songs but rarely plays the Pei Pok flute, once his instrument.
“I still play it, but not very much,” he said. “It reminds me of something very ancient, in a good way.”
While Cambodia has those rich cultural traditions, as well as modern popular music, Khuon Sethisak sees opera as a gap in his nation’s cultural understanding.
“I am trying to promote opera here,” he said. “It’s a form of art that is recognized in the world, so you can promote your country with this.”
So far he has had limited success and still performs primarily for the royal family and foreign dignitaries, though some do visit his Web site, www.sethisak.com, where people can hear his voice through MP3 technology.
But an offer from retired King Norodom Sihanouk to have Khuon Sethisak use his songs in an opera may bring Western and traditional Cambodian opera closer together.
“Sihanouk’s songs, you can use your voice more than traditional songs,” Khuon Sethisak said, added that the former king’s melodies require more range than most traditional music, which makes them well-suited to opera but difficult for most Cambodian performers to sing without lowering the key.
His vision for a fusion opera sets Cambodian melodies against the lush instrumentation and complex harmonies of Western music, but he said a lack of trained musicians would make execution difficult.
He has found only one pianist with whom to perform, a Japanese man named Sakono Issei who works for a legal corporation.
“He’s the only one in Cambodia I’ve found to play for me,” Khuon Sethisak said. “He’s the only pianist who can play Rachmaninoff.”