In an outdoor amphitheatre in the grounds of the National Museum, the traditional Cambodian music and dance show Plae Pakaa opens for its evening performance.
Insects buzz in the air and leaves drift magically down from the dark foliage ahead. The audience is predominantly tourists – some have seen advertisements for the show on the back of tuk-tuks, or from street press, others have been approached by enthusiastic young people out the front of the museum itself, where in the daytime the performers sell tickets from a mobile stall.
The last season of the Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) show saw audience numbers grow from 1,000 to 6,000 – now the outdoor show is becoming a permanent fixture and will soon be protected from the elements by a new rooftop so that performances can carry on into the rainy season.
The increased audience numbers are meaningful: in the absence of a national opera company, the only job opportunities open for young traditional arts performers such as Yike opera singers are in Plae Pakaa.
Over the past dry season, the show has employed more than 120 performers in its three rotating shows performed six nights a week, covering folk and classical dance, village rituals and harvest celebrations, and yike.
The larger audiences can be attributed to having a run of shows through the week, and stronger marketing, CLA communications manager Marion Gommard said.
“Having regular performances [six nights a week] was easier for visitors and tours to remember, and for us to advertise. We also dedicated a specific team on this program.”
When 24-year-old opera singer Teom Vannet graduated from singing at the Royal University of Fine Arts classroom to treading the boards of the Plae Pakaa outdoor stage, he was thrilled to be in the production. Performing twice a week as part of the yike opera show Mak Therng is his dream job, he said and came after three years of studying an art form that was carefully rebuilding itself through the cultivation of young singers like him.
“During these three years I had no chance to perform. So this is the first chance for us to be on the stage. I can’t describe how happy I was. After we studied we thought maybe we wouldn’t get work, but this gives us work.”
Vannet first saw the theatrical Khmer opera performed in his home province of Kandal. After graduating from his Prey Ang high school, he didn’t have enough money to study singing at RUFA but instead attended a secondary school of fine arts, where, he said, he “fell in love” with the opera form. He started studying yike with CLA in 2009 after eventually being accepted into RUFA, and immersed himself in its combined skills of music, voice and dance.
Twice a week, Vannet dons an elaborate bejewelled costume to play the character of the King in the traditional folk tale Mak Therng.
He is not sick of the repertoire, he said, and is still delighted that audience members who don’t understand the language are happy to sit through the show in Khmer, although he admitted overhead subtitles can distract from the show as well. In all, 90 young performers are contracted with Plae Pakaa – which means “fruitful” – appearing in pin peat orchestras, dancing, singing and presenting.
“When I see foreigners are deeply happy [with the show] I can’t believe they sit for one hour to watch us. Even if they cannot understand Khmer, they listen to the music. It makes me proud, and I want to perform good singing to show them.
“We really want Plae Pakaa to continue for the whole year – at least we can show traditional art. Not just keep it in the classroom.”
Plae Pakaa’s new season of shows perform every Friday and Saturday, 7pm at the National Museum of Phnom Penh until October, when the shows return to a six-nights-a-week schedule.