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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ban 'insulting' opera: monks

Ban 'insulting' opera: monks


The world premier of rock opera Where Elephants Weep was held in PPenh and presided over by Sok An, but angry monks now demand it be banned


Actor Michael Lee performs during a rehearsal for the Broadway musical-style rock opera Where Elephants Weep in Phnom Penh on November 14.

CAMBODIA'S much-vaunted rock opera Where Elephants Weep has fallen afoul of the Kingdom's Buddhist clergy, who have demanded the show be banned.

"Some scenes in the story insult Buddhism," said a letter sent to the Ministry of Cults and Religion by the Supreme Sangha Council of Buddhist Monks. The letter - also sent to the media - went on to ask that the ministry "ban the performance and airing of the opera", and demanded an apology from the show's director, writer and actors.

Elephants, a post-Khmer Rouge take on the Cambodian classic Tom Tiev, was written by American playwright Catherine Filloux and Cambodian composer Him Sothy. The work merges pop and rock music with more traditional and historical Cambodian tunes, and played in Phnom Penh from late November through early December.

Last week, a local television station aired the show, prompting the monks' council to write to complain, asking that the government ban further broadcasts of the musical.

The opera tells the story a Cambodian-American man who returns after the demise of the 1970s Khmer Rouge regime to reconnect with his roots. While he is a monk, he falls into a doomed love affair with a pop singer.

But in predominantly Buddhist Cambodia, monks are expected to be austere and eschew worldly pleasures such as entertainment. Consequently, the council objected to many scenes, including one in which the actor "left the monkhood and slept with a woman, but a moment later put the robe back on to be a monk again..." states the letter, dated Tuesday.

The show "oppresses Cambodian Buddhist monks, causes more than 50,000 monks to lose their honour, value and to express frustration," it added.

Minister of Religion Min Khin told the Post Sunday that he plans to discuss the issue with the minister of culture and fine arts and the minister of information at the upcoming Victory over Genocide celebrations on Wednesday.

"We have received the letter from Cambodia's Supreme Sangha Council of Buddhist Monks, and we think that showing the opera Where Elephants Weep on television inappropriate and presents Buddhist monks in an unacceptable way," said Min Khin.  

We will not apologise: artist

Eang Sithul, president of the Cambodian Artists Association and a performer in the controversial show, told the Post Sunday that neither he nor any of the other performers had any intention of apologising.

"We did not look down on Buddhism," he said, adding the musical focused on the story of one individual monk and did not pass judgement on the state of the clergy as a whole.

Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said his ministry was not planning on demanding an apology.

 "We have no objection to the opera, we just do not want to televise it because it looks a bit messy when it is broadcast on TV," he said, adding that the bilingual opera was complex in theme and delivery and better left to those who could afford to shell out for a ticket to the Phnom Penh performances.

"It looks better if we cut the scene with the monks," Khieu Kanharith added.

But Thai Naraksatya, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, told the Post on Sunday that Elephants was an excellent performance that helped portray life in Cambodia in the post-Khmer Rouge period and could provide a moral education of sorts.  

"Where Elephants Weep is not only providing a [moral] education to our people, but it also shows how much Cambodia's arts scene has improved," Thai Naraksatya said.

The show had a successful US preview last year, and after its run ends in Cambodia, it is expected to tour South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan before returning to the United States.




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