Sethisak Khuon is a tenor and the first internationally trained opera singer in Cambodia. The award-winning singer studied in Moscow for eight years before returning to the Kingdom in 1996 to lay the groundwork for a future generation of classically trained musicians. He performs frequently in festivals, recitals and workshops – and for the King. This week, he spoke with Vandy Muong about the places in the city that shape his art
The School of Fine Arts
There was no university of fine arts during my childhood – it was the communist time, and I was in the first generation [of war]. The School of Fine Arts was the first art academy I attended, in 1980. I studied general studies and music, majoring in piano. We lived there: we ate, slept and studied together at school. The students did not care about money then, they were focused only on studies. The teachers chose the top students to study abroad. In 1988, I was selected to study in Russia. The School of Fine Arts has changed and relocated many times since then: the first building was located at what is now the Royal University of Fine Arts. Soon it will move to the other side of the Japanese bridge.
The Royal Palace
Opera performance requires a professional place to perform, and we don’t have an opera house. When I returned from Russia in the 1990s, I first performed in the Royal Palace. Whenever a president or senior member of state from another country comes to visit the King, my music crew and I rehearse the national concert to play at the official Royal Palace event. For example, Chinese president [Xi Jinping] will visit the King this weekend. I am the national opera singer, and I always perform at the royal concerts. There is a different repertoire for different guests, sometimes from their selection and sometimes on my recommendation.
The Council of Ministers building
The Council of Ministers building is a limited and private space to perform for important guests. After a meeting, the Cambodian ministers will welcome foreign guests with a concert, singing and dancing. I’m always invited by Cambodian politicians to sing for events. I can sing three to four songs for each event; sometimes I perform solo. It’s good to have a musical performance – it makes people relaxed. The Council of Ministers has a stage for us to perform, but it’s not professional, there is no acoustic background. But an opera stage would require a lot of investment.
Good Time Gym
Good health is more important than anything. As a singer, I have to keep up my health as a way of living. I like to do training to keep a strong voice, and playing tennis. Besides rehearsing and singing, I take every day to relax at the Good Time Gym, where I have a membership card. It’s a large space and the atmosphere is good. It’s a great place to meet friends there; they care about good health as well. Most of my friends there are in the government. There aren’t many artists who care for sports.
People might think that each singer eats special food to keep a good voice, but I eat everything. I like Khmer, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Western food. I don’t have a family at home and I don’t cook for myself, so I eat all three meals out in town. After exercising, I like to go for a steak and wine at Topaz or the Original Steakhouse, because it’s high-quality. Sometimes I meet friends at the restaurant. I always focus on what I want to eat, it depends on the feeling. Luckily, Phnom Penh has everything.