In Hy Chanthavouth’s high school, singers were not allowed on the pianos.
But the then-16-year-old so loved music that he would make copies of the piano room key so that he could sneak in to play.
Later, at his Canadian university, the tenor with the powerful voice would stay up late – sometimes till the early hours of the morning – practising to get every note right.
Now 28, Chanthavouth is a man of few words but many keys.
“I practise every chance I get, even if it’s just five minutes in the shower.”
On Saturday, Chanthavouth won a music scholarship from Chiara Angkor Music Productions – a non-profit organisation that aims to introduce world-class classical music to the Kingdom.
The prize was part of the Catch a Cambodian Star music scholarship and was presented at a fundraising recital at the InterContinental Hotel on Saturday.
The two-part charity concert aims to raise money to fund a young Cambodian musician’s international studies.
The first concert was held on Saturday, with world-renowned musicians Boris Slutsky and Igor Yuzefovich performing Bach, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff. The second instalment will be held on May 21.
Organisers from Chiara heard many Cambodians from both here and abroad before settling on Chanthavouth.
Yumi Ono, Chiara’s creative director, said: “He was by far the best. We think he has the natural talent [and] with further training could go on to represent Cambodia.”
With his slight, lean figure, Chanthavouth hardly looks the part of a typical full-bodied Italian tenor – but those who have heard him sing testify to his talent.
Arne Sahlen, president of the Cambodia Support Group (CSG), a Canadian-based NGO, first heard Chanthavouth sing in 2006 at a concert to raise money for a Cambodian school for the disabled.
“It was his first ever solo performance. I played the piano for him,” said Arne, who added the day was “burned in his memory”.
“He had such resonance! I thought, ‘where’s the loudspeaker?’”
The CSG has been supporting Chanthavouth in his music education since he enrolled in a music high school in Phnom Penh when he was 16.
Chanthavouth’s parents were initially against his interest in opera – the form is unfamiliar to many Cambodians.
“I wanted him to become a teacher or doctor,” his mother, Koam Kimhuon, said.
But she soon changed her mind when CSG offered to financially support Chanthavouth to pursue a music education in Canada in 2007.
“I realised then that he had something special,” she added.
Even then, things were never easy. Life was a constant search for funds – Chanthavouth would travel the breadth of Canada with Arne, raising money for the CSG. The money would go on to support other Cambodians as well as his own education.
“Sometimes the bus rides would take more than 10 hours. I would fall asleep thinking about the performance,” Chanthavouth said.
Now with additional assistance from Chiara, those days might finally be over.
The young tenor’s goal now is to become a professional opera singer and perform with the world’s best.
He said: “I want to show people that Cambodia is not about war, poverty or disaster. I want to show the world our music, our culture and the rich arts that we have.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Danson Cheong at email@example.com