Blending rock with opera - and a Cambodian twist

Blending rock with opera - and a Cambodian twist

Khmer theatre director Him Sophy explains how his debut production appeals to audience members young and old by pioneering a whole new art form


In recent years, an exciting new art form has begun to appear in Cambodia, one which contains an intoxicating mixture of modern and classical music.

The man behind such melodies, Him Sophy, has named it Khmer rock opera.

Him Sophy studied music at the Royal University of Fine Art, before and after the Khmer Rouge regime.

He also won a scholarship to study in Moscow and graduated with a master's degree in 1993, before adding a doctorate two years later.

In 2001, the Asian Consulting Group awarded him sponsorship to complete an internship in the US, which is where he initiated Khmer rock opera.

This musical hybrid contains a unique mix of rock instruments, such as guitar and drums, and traditional Cambodian instruments.

Sophy says that "our teenagers love rock music. I mix traditional and modern rhythm sections together and try to make it typically Khmer."

The musical virtuoso feels it is important to keep things fresh, in order that audiences' interest remains piqued.

"If we never come up with anything new, if we stand still, our art will gradually disappear because people become bored by it," Sophy stated.

He is also excited by this new form because Khmer rock opera is one of the few styles which is capable of satisfying both older audiences and teenagers, due to its mixture of traditional and modern melody.

Of course, plenty of art and music already exist in Cambodia.

Lakorn basak is a traditional dramatic style, which looks similar to opera, but many Cambodians, especially teenagers, find it difficult to engage with, as the style has not evolved since its early days.

Him Sophy enjoys the freedom of creating something new without copying from others, yet retains a deep admiration for his ancestors as the inventors.

Arguably their greatest achievements were the temples, but obviously all the temples look different.

So, Sophy reasons, if that is the case, he can certainly make Khmer rock opera different from lakorn basak without compromising the culture.

The first Khmer rock opera, Where Elephants Weep, was performed internationally in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 2007, before its Cambodian run at the Chenla Theatre.

The production required subtitles, as the actors sang in English, and vice-versa when they sometimes spoke in Khmer.

Eventually, Sophy hopes all dialogue will be in Khmer, but he feels that at the moment it is important to retain English as a means to spread Cambodian art and music.

Where Elephants Weep took years to complete, due to Sophy's time requirements in recruiting a strong team and testing traditional Cambodian instruments.

The story follows Sam, the Khmer protagonist, who escapes the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and makes his way to the United States via a refugee camp in Thailand.

He builds a successful career in the US but decides to return to his roots and is ordained as a Buddhist monk.

Sam is a bit clumsy and unversed in Khmer customs upon his arrival, initially committing faux pas such as shaking hands when greeting people.

Having finally settled into the life of a monk, Sam's world is turned upside-down when he becomes enchanted by a beautiful Cambodian pop singer, Bopha.

However, Bopha's brother, Khan, is an opportunist who hopes to use Sam as a platform for financial gain.

So begins a treacherous story of love and loss, despair and redemption.

The production at Chenla Theatre was recorded and broadcast on Cambodia's biggest television network, CTN, in December 2008.

A repeat airing was scheduled to take place but was cancelled due to a perceived confliction with many Buddhist monks in Cambodia.

Him Sophy maintains he dealt with that controversy, by removing the phrase 'monk wears Buddhist robe but embraces woman' from the production, claiming it was nothing more than a translation mistake.

Where Elephants Weep made a huge impression during its run in Cambodia.

Audiences who were lucky enough to see it soon spread the word, and it has garnered a huge number of followers and enthusiasts, who hope the production will be repeated at some stage.

However, Him Sophy is unsure of the chances that will happen, revealing that it costs too much money to perform the Rock Opera even once. Khmer audiences may have to wait to have their appetites satisfied, as the performance at Chenla theatre last year cost around US$1 million.


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