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East meets West in Where Elephants Weep opera

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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.

C

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

work.

"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

quartet.

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

Traditional Music,.

"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

and Bess.

"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

fluent language.

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."

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