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Cambodia's first rock opera hopes its stage will be a bridge

  • Story Highlights
  • Tale of Cambodian-Americans who return after surviving the Khmer Rouge
  • Many artists died under the genocidal 1970s regime
  • Rock opera is part of bid to revive the arts in Cambodia
  • Composer Him Sophy survived the Khmer Rouge and studied in Russia for years
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By Miranda Leitsinger
CNN
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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (CNN) -- A man strums an electric guitar while another musician blows on a buffalo horn converted into an instrument. A boy performs the traditional Cambodian monkey dance spliced in with breakdancing beats while a singer raps to the moves.

The lead male character, Sam, rehearses in a Phnom Penh studio in early November.

The lead male character, Sam, rehearses in a Phnom Penh studio in early November.

The artists are rehearsing for Cambodia's first known contemporary rock opera, "Where Elephants Weep," which makes its world debut Friday in Phnom Penh.

The production, loosely based on a classical Cambodian love story and performed in both English and Cambodian, is part of a bid to revive the arts in the Southeast Asian country, where most artists died under the Khmer Rouge, an ultra-Maoist movement bent on building an agrarian utopia.

"I think when any culture is interrupted by the tragedy of war, it's particularly important to go back and visit those (ancient) traditions, but we are in the 21st century and it's also important to bring those traditions forward," said John Burt, the show's executive producer and founding chair emeritus of Cambodian Living Arts, which commissioned the production.

"Where Elephants Weep" is the tale of two Cambodian-American men who return home after surviving the 1970s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime to reconnect with their roots but are confronted by the tragic past as well as an unfamiliar modern Cambodian society. One of them ends up in a pagoda and ultimately dead, while another falls into a doomed love affair with a leading local pop singer.

"There are many, many twists and turns in the love story that we have created that bring together the marriage of east and west and also address very specifically the clashes between east and west, between modernity and ancient life," Burt said. Video Watch rehearsals, listen to creators of "Where Elephants Weep" »

Those worlds can be seen in the dance, where American and Cambodian choreographers fused traditional Cambodian dance, including using shadow puppets cut into the shape of elephants, with the back spins and handstands of breakdancing.

The music also parallels the east-west journey of the two male protagonists.

Composer Him Sophy, who studied in Russia for 13 years after surviving the Khmer Rouge labor camps, has blended rap, religious chanting, rock, his country's ancient music, operatic styles, pop and even added a Khmer Rouge propaganda song as a cell phone ringtone in the production.

Two musical ensembles will perform on the stage: a traditional Cambodian one that includes some 37 instruments such as the long-neck guitar and a one-stringed instrument; and a Western rock band outfitted with drums, an electric bass, piano and synthesizer.

"I knew before that it would be so difficult for me as a composer because traditional musical instruments are never played in big performances, Cambodian musicians never read (musical) notes, they don't work with a conductor and especially related to the tune -- the pitch of traditional instruments -- it's not enough tune to perform with the rock band," Him Sophy said.

To resolve the tune issue, the composer said he and his team "reinvented" some of the Cambodian instruments, such as the buffalo horn -- believed to be used for some 1,000 years to call elephants.

"The commission of this opera ... was to inspire and invite him (composer Him Sophy) to bring his own voice of the ancient Khmer sound into his own score that married his traditions with western pop and rock tradition," Burt said.

Most of Cambodia's artistic traditions had been passed down orally, from teacher to student, up through the 1970s. But a majority of the country's artists were some of the at least 1.7 million people -- nearly a quarter of Cambodia's population -- who died under the Khmer Rouge from execution, disease, starvation and overwork, according to the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

Five of the regime's former leaders are awaiting trial before a U.N.-backed tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The loss of Cambodia's artists spurred efforts to find survivors who could instruct future generations about the country's ancient arts, some of the instruments of which can be seen carved on the temples of Angkor Wat, which are up to 1,200 years old, in Siem Reap.

Cambodian Living Arts now has 20 master artists teaching nearly 400 students, plus an archive sound studio. The group is expanding its efforts to include commissions of new work, such as the rock opera.

Him Sophy lost two brothers to the Khmer Rouge.

One of the songs he composed for the production, "No Mother," is about those who lost their parents under the Khmer Rouge, and the main character, Sam, has suppressed many of his painful memories of being a child soldier during that era.

"Of course, the tragedy for Cambodian people, I cannot explain it all, but I would like to show it through the opera," he said.

The story is not just a reprisal of the country's tragic past, but a look at it today: there are scenes of beer girls and nightclubs, Buddhist religious ceremonies and a planned traditional arranged marriage, and the newly rich living in freshly-acquired luxury homes.

Burt said a Cambodian-American friend inspired him to bring forward the story of those refugees who go back and "land in this very betwixt and between place, where they are not really American, they are not really Cambodian."

The cast includes Cambodian-Americans, one who said the experience has been a homecoming of sorts for her.

When Amara Chhin-Lawrence, 27, came to Cambodia for the project in 2003, "it was very much a feeling of being at home ... because there wasn't this dual nature anymore."

"This is where I feel like my yearning for my homeland will rest," she added.

Burt, who had to have a theater renovated to accommodate the size and scope of the show since there was no suitable venue in the country, aims to take it to other cities around the world but believed it was important to have the world premiere in Cambodia.

"Cambodia soon will and should have the stages that can welcome international touring shows, that can welcome the shows of their own people, and our hope is that this show really raises the possibility for that to occur," he said.

The creative team also hopes audiences will view Cambodia differently after seeing the show.

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The production presents "Cambodia in the light that it so urgently needs to be shown in," Filloux said. "And that is not in terms of the Khmer Rouge regime, not in terms of looking in the rearview mirror, but in looking towards the resilience of spirit of Cambodian people, at the enormous challenges that they have faced and how their art and their sensibility and their spirituality can utterly transform them."

"Where Elephants Weep" runs through December 7.

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