Him Sophy instructs musicians at a rehearsal in Phnom Penh for his Cambodian opera Where Elephants Weep. It will debut in Lowell, Massachusetts in April 2007 and be performed in Phnom Penh next December.
omposer Him Sophy walks in, sits down, and starts talking about music. Effusive
and enthusiastic, the Moscow-trained doctor of Western Classical Composition conducts
a conversation that ranges from Peter Tchaikovsky to George Gershwin - and finishes
in a flourish as he unpacks the perplexing underpinning of his new contemporary Cambodian
opera Where Elephants Weep.
Sophy has just finished a month-long workshop in Phnom Penh with musicians, conductors
and performers from Cambodia and abroad. The rehearsals were the first chance to
hear Sophy's compositions performed by local musicians and a major step in an ambitious
musical project staggering in its complexity.
The first-of-its-kind opera attempts to fuse traditional Cambodian music with Western
structures in a songwriting salmagundi that includes rock, rap, ancient Khmer lullabies
and even cellphone rings.
In the span of one production, synthesizers, electric guitars and 12th Century Cambodian
instruments will be used to perform old Khmer Rouge songs, American hip-hop and classical
operatic love songs. The opera will be sung in English and Khmer with surtitles in
both languages as well.
It's a dizzying mix. But - according to Sophy - it's so incongruous, it just might
"It's something you've never heard before. We allow the musicians to play with
the notes and improvise around the melodies, but with the same Cambodian flavor,
" Sophy told the Post. "It's fantastic how it all fits together."
The groundbreaking project, commissioned by Cambodian Living Arts and funded mostly
by foreign donors, began in 2003. According to Sophy, performances of Where Elephants
Weep will include a 10- musician ensemble, nine actors, five extras and a string
It's scheduled to open in Phnom Penh late next year, but will debut in April at the
1920s-era stage at Lowell High School in Lowell, Massachusetts. That Lowell High
has a student body 38 percent Cambodian is hardly lost on Sophy.
"The opera has a message; it's about the mix of Western and Cambodian cultures
and about how Cambodia is changing and developing," he said. "It's also
about being an artist and being in love."
Despite the disparate elements, executive producer John Burt believes the work will
be easily understood and enjoyed by audiences.
" This is a popular piece and a classical love story. The written music is highly
accessible and extremely musical. It's melodic and romantic," Burt said. "We've
called it an opera, but it's probably closer to what in the US we would call 'music
theatre,' like 'West Side Story'."
According to Burt, it's Sophy's artistic voice and creative vision that provide the
project's character and cohesion.
"Sophy has the remarkable capacity to adapt to different musical forms but maintain
the integrity of his own voice," he said. "We've been admiring his willingness
to work with a creative team: the librettist, the musicians and the cast. The team
is all revolving around his music and he's capable of working in a team and keeping
his own voice."
Sophy, 43, was born in Prey Veng province 50 km outside Phnom Penh. He studied piano
under French instructors at the School of Fine Arts from 1972 until 1975. In the
Pol Pot era he was taken to the country and forced to work in labor camps. In 1979
he came back to Phnom Penh.
"There was no school so I worked here and there as a musician," Sophy said.
"I didn't have the chance to go back to school until 1981."
In 1985, Sophy became the first Cambodian awarded a scholarship to the Moscow State
Tchaikovsky Conservatory where he studied for 13 years, earning a doctorate in Western
Classical Composition in 1998. His dissertation was Theoretical Problems in Cambodian
"If you are in school to learn about Western composition you're going to be
studying a lot of opera, " Sophy said. "I decided to do opera in Moscow.
I first wanted to do a children's opera. But fell in love with Gershwin and Porgy
"Opera has so, so many things involved; not just music: voice and acting are
important to express feelings expressly related to the scene," he said. "I
told my professor that my dream was to write an opera. She said 'To write an opera
you must be very disciplined and patient. You must be dedicated or otherwise you
can't do it.'"
With When Elephants Weep, Sophy and his team are in an unexplored musical territory.
For Sophy it is his first time writing music for the stage, his first opera and his
initial foray in to rock and roll. He was also writing songs in English, his fifth
Producer Burt says, "Most Western music is rooted deeply in the Western classical
tradition. So Sophy was well-trained before he ever started writing music in Western
forms. The lay listener may not understand that but the logic enabled him to do it."
The opera is a love story, of course. It's the tale of a Cambodian-American who is
urged by his best friend to return to his home nation and cultural roots. Sam, the
protagonist, gives up his career as a musician in the States and joins the monkhood
in Phnom Penh. Along the way he falls in love with a Cambodian pop star named Bopha.
Librettist Catherine Filloux, commissioned to write the opera's lyrics, said, "We
decided to follow the story of Tum Teav, the Cambodian story, however to follow it
very loosely. Tum Teav is called the Romeo and Juliet of Cambodia. In this libretto
I wanted to speak about a new age; an age when a country could reclaim its spirit.
There is light and hope at the end of Where Elephants Weep. I hope that the fun,
the love between Sam and Bopha, the meeting of cultures and a way of re-imagining
our worlds are aspects of the opera that can heal."