It's 8pm and a full moon illuminates the Sisophon night sky. Two clowns wearing black make-up, billowing trousers, and felt wigs stumble out on to the stage behind a plump lady adorned in an emerald and gold silk costume and a glittering crown. She’s supposed to be a giant – a coquettish giant, it seems, fluttering her eyelashes at the clowns and swirling her hips. Suddenly she collapses to the ground and the clown proceeds to break wind in her face – for an entire minute.
The crowd of around 2000, curled up on straw mats, erupts in a roar of laughter. They have gathered to see Lem Chouen’s Bassac Opera, in a tiny village square on the fringes of Sisophon in Banteay Meanchey province.
Despite the evident popularity of tonight’s show, as a traditional artform Bassac opera may not survive into the future, warns Choeun.
Traditionally, the opera was a family affair, with peformers’ children joining the travelling musical troupe. Like so much of Cambodia’s arts, almost all of the Bassac culture ended at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Choeun, the 60-year-old eponymous director of the ensemble, is one of only three surviving performers born into a traditional Bassac family. The only reason he is alive, he says, is because he hid under the bodies of his parents and four siblings after they were shot, before fleeing into the jungle.
Unlike the rarified world of Western opera, Bassac is an open-air spectacle, with storylines born from Khmer myths and legends. The company is currently touring Cambodia and have already played in all 24 provinces, including Phnom Penh. Chouen’s face is painted white with rosy cheeks and he wears an ornate, shimmering cape. He is one of the lead characters and plays ‘the good father’ in the piece Toek Chet Mday (The Heart of a Mother) the group will perform later in the evening.
He tells me they always play modern music before the main show, another telling sign that the traditional Khmer opera is fading – playing cheesy, homogenous pop music is the only way they can attract a younger crowd, he says.
The slapstick humour is clearly appealing: the village square is packed with people. Yet of the $500 payment, collected from small donations the locals make in the lead up to the performance, the group of 25 actors and support staff will only keep $250, with the village chief pocketing the other half.
“When we come to a village we usually make a deal with the chief: He gets half the money the villagers donate and in return he makes sure that everybody comes to see the performance,” Lem Chouen says.
It is little money for a life spent on the road. Moving equipment and people to the next destination and setting up the stage takes a full day, with many evening performances slipping into the early hours of the morning.
Under the stage the actors make their home. They sleep in hammocks that are strung from the scaffolding. “We need to guard our equipment and cannot afford to waste the money we make for guesthouses,” Chouen explains. The actors travel with their families and small children. All together, the travelling troupe makes up almost 100 people.
During the dry season the troupe tries to perform every day, as open-air concerts become impossible when it rains. For the wet months the actors take jobs as moto-dops, vegetable vendors, or work in the rice paddies.
Before the Khmer Rouge, Bassac opera experienced a golden era in Cambodia says Suon Bun Rith, the director of the acclaimed Phare Ponleu Selpak art school and a former UNESCO culture specialist.
Historically performed in the Bassac River region of Kampuchea Krom, the opera used to be known as ‘Lakhaon Treoung Klok’, before arriving in Phnom Penh the 1930s, where it gained a sudden popularity and was renamed ‘Lakhaon Bassac’.
In the 1960s, another resurgence saw the folkloric art promoted by famous actors such as Sang Sarun and Chek Mach.
“Bassac was considered contemporary or even avant-garde performing.” Suon Bun says.
Indeed, the anarchic performance of the giant in Lem Chouen’s troupe seems to have more in common with punk and avant-garde than he does opera. It is not music so much as noise that accompanies his character’s bloodcurdling roars: a hammering of drums and anvils, followed by wild dancing. The children in the audience stare with open mouths, their eyes wide with excitement, as well as fear.
“The great strength of Bassac is its flexibility because it is not as rigid as other performing arts like ballet. It gives the artist and directors a lot of creative freedom,” explains Suon. “They tell old folk tales everyone can refer to as well as modern pieces. We once even did a Bassac opera on Pol Pot.”
But funding the productions is always a worry – and charging more for tickets is not an option, either.
“The Cambodian audience is lousy,” Suon says. “They chat, eat, and walk around. Bassac is a social mass event in the countryside.”
According to Suon the audience wouldn’t and couldn’t pay one dollar for a ticket. “Bassac is part of the folk culture and mostly farmers and ordinary people watch it.”
In the village they are performing in tonight, cars pass closely by the stage and policemen blow their whistle to keep people off the street that runs right through the audience. Countless vendors sell snacks and drinks. People are coming and going and the later it gets, the emptier the village square becomes.
“The whole life of the people happens during a Bassac ,” Suon says.
It does seem hard to imagine asking for much money to see a Bassac opera, but even harder to believe that this art form, that people love so much, should cease to exist.
To contact the reporter on this story: Julius Thiemann at [email protected]