Several dozen of the country’s top performing artists—Khmer classical dancers, Bassac theater actors and even traditional circus performers—gathered in Phnom Penh last week for one of the most important auditions of their careers: trying out for Cambodia’s first-ever production of a Western classical opera.
But unlike most auditions, this one had a double purpose. The artists were also showcasing the best of their work for Italian stage director Stefano Vizioli and Australian-Italian music director Aaron Carpene, helping them devise ways to integrate Cambodia’s traditional art forms into a new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
Coordinated by Amrita Performing Arts, the auditions are the first phase of a project that will involve advanced training provided by Southeast Asian music conservatories and culminate in December 2017 in the staging of the opera at an Angkorian temple in Siem Reap City.
The project, “Mozart at Angkor,” was conceived years ago when pianist and journalist Robert Turnbull was covering Cambodia’s art scene for international newspapers after moving to the country in 1997.
Although there was an interest in Khmer classical dance and other traditional art forms, little attention was paid to Cambodian pianists, violinists or other musicians of Western instruments, Mr. Turnbull said.
“I was aware that there were some quite talented musicians,” he said. “But essentially they have very few opportunities to perform, and that’s something which has been bothering me for a long time.”
About five years ago, Mr. Turnbull came up with the idea of staging “The Magic Flute” in Cambodia as a means to both further musicians’ training and help put Cambodia on the Western-music map of Asia.
He picked the 18th-century opera because he believes the storyline will be familiar to Cambodians. In the story, characters resort to magic, as in so many Cambodian tales, and some scenes are similar to those of the Reamker, the country’s version of the epic tale Ramayana.
“It’s funny, it’s humane, it’s a search for universal truth,” Mr. Turnbull said of “The Magic Flute.” Moreover, since there is a great deal of spoken dialogue, he said, “It’s more like a musical.” In addition, he added, some roles don’t require Western-opera-trained voices.
Mr. Turnbull hoped the opera would be staged at the Angkor Archaeological Park to provide the best setting possible. What was needed was a monument that would provide an intimate setting and good acoustics, he said.
While touring the park with Fred Frumberg, Amrita’s president who has experience producing operas, Mr. Turnbull selected the 12th-century monument Chau Say Tevoda, which was restored by a Chinese archeological team in the 2000s.
After obtaining the permission of the Apsara Authority, which manages Angkor park, Mr. Turnbull went to work.
One of the most important elements of the project was to generate more post-graduate training opportunities for Cambodian musicians playing Western instruments, since there is no national music conservatory.
“Infrastructure is not only about buildings,” Mr. Turnbull said. “Infrastructure is also about talent and about skills, and that’s what we want to build on. I’m not in a position to build a new conservatory here. But I am in a position, through this project, to build capacity and give opportunities for Cambodian classical musicians in the future.”
Universities in Singapore and Bangkok have agreed to provide training to Cambodian musicians and singers who show potential during the auditions but may need to further their skills, he said. The goal is to have as many as 100 Cambodian artists and musicians join the international opera singers and musicians for the performance, he added.
The auditions, which run through this Wednesday, are serving two purposes, said Kang Rithisal, executive director of Amrita, which is the project’s line producer.
“It’s not only auditions. It’s actually the chance for stage director Stefano and music director Aaron to come to Cambodia, spend time with the artists…and see art forms that they never knew,” he said.
The notion of integrating Asian art forms into a Western opera is not new to Mr. Carpene and Mr. Vizioli. In 2013, they staged a production of George Fredric Handel’s “Acis and Galatea,” in which they blended Bhutanese music, dance, costumes and cultural elements with traditional European ones.
“A job like ours is of constantly learning, to have new experiences, new challenges,” Mr. Vizioli said. “Otherwise you’re on automatic pilot in your work…. The experience of Cambodia is extremely strong because, finally, I can enter in a new dimension of the work…learning so many things. All this is nourishment for my soul.”
The auditions are giving them ideas about how best to use traditional Cambodian art forms in “The Magic Flute,” such as having Khmer classical dancers accompanying the Queen of the Night in a scene, or, most obviously, having the opera’s eponymous flute be a Cambodian traditional one. Mr. Carpene is also toying with the idea of having the flute play a Khmer traditional tune at one point.
“Because, I’m thinking, if Mozart was in Cambodia, isn’t that what he would have done? He would have created something for that instrument and he would have taken advantage of the instrument’s possibilities,” he said.
But all this must be done very carefully so that it remains a unified version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” not a “Caesar salad” peppered with Cambodian elements here and there, Mr. Vizioli said.
This is why Mr. Carpene and Mr. Vizioli are focusing so intensely during the auditions. Last week was the turn of Soum Meta, a 20-year-old Bassac theater singer studying at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), to audition, which she did in full costume.
“I was very nervous when I was called in for the audition, because some of my classmates had applied for it but were not selected,” she said.
Ms. Meta selected a dramatic excerpt to perform. “I picked that one because I believed that foreigners are used to just see the romantic moments in Bassac theater…. The song I sang is not so different from Western opera.”
“I don’t know what will happen next, but I believe this first-ever Western opera production in Siem Reap would be fantastic,” she added.
Flutist Chan Vitharo, who teaches at RUFA, is of the same opinion. “I think this is a great opportunity because I have never played for an opera,” he said.
For his audition this week, Mr. Vitharo has selected works by Mozart, including excerpts from “The Magic Flute.” “I want to join the orchestra very much,” he said.
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