Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Opera premiers with 'thrilling' performance

Opera premiers with 'thrilling' performance

Opera premiers with 'thrilling' performance


Drawing out Phnom Penh's A-list, Friday's much-awaited world premiere of Where Elephants Weep sets new standard for performance in Cambodia

Photo supplied by Cambodian Living Arts

Michael Lee (Sam) and Diane Verniac Phelan (Bopha) during rehearsals for Where Elephants Weep.

THE much-anticipated opening night of Where Elephants Weep was an affair to remember and set a new standard for the performing arts in Cambodia. The event kicked off with a celebratory Champagne party outside the Chenla Theatre, where the performance was held. Phnom Penh's A-list was dressed to impress, and the mood was highly animated in anticipation of this monumental event.

Seven years in the making, Where Elephants Weep is the brainchild of producer John Burt, with an original score by Moscow-trained Cambodian composer Him Sophy and a libretto written by award-winning playwright Catherine Filloux.

The story is a familiar tale of love tragically denied, family turmoil, personal and spiritual quests, and coming to terms with a splintered past.

Two screens were set on either side of the stage showing Khmer and English subtitles and making the story - written in both languages - easy to follow.

There was a 'yes' [in the audience] and an embrace, and that's what every

producer wishes for.

After a few words from Burt and an address from Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, the house lights dimmed and the show began.

Story of self-awakening

Mostly dramatic but with comic elements, the opera tells the story of Sam (Michael Lee) and his journey of self-awakening upon returning to Cambodia after surviving the Khmer Rouge years as a child soldier.

With encouragement from his best friend and support from a Buddhist teacher, Sam remembers scenes from his childhood and grapples with present temptations.

The set was simple but effective, with exceptional lighting and sublime movement.

Choreographer Sean Curran used a combination of traditional Khmer dance and modern street styles to embellish the theme of contemporary versus traditional.

The music was also rooted in these themes of the juxtaposition, or a collision of ideals, and really set the overall tone for the performance.

"If theatre is well-told, you don't actually have to speak the language to understand it," director Robert McQueen said.

And the dynamic sounds produced by the two musical groups (a rock band and a traditional Khmer ensemble) conveyed a meaning much deeper than words.

After the performance, wine, beer and Champagne were served alongside hors d'oeuvres provided by the InterContinental Hotel, and the audience lingered to soak in the festive and sophisticated post-show atmosphere.

The audience included a mixture of cultures and age groups, aptly representing the changing climate that enabled such a performance to be a success.

"I thought the music was outstanding and the voices were great," said audience member Marianne Waller. "Everybody's been talking about it, every elevator I get into, every restaurant I'm at ... I overhear people talking about it.... It's been fantastic."

A unifying experience

Producer John Burt echoed the enthusiasm.

"We know that we have a very special show, and we're bringing a different kind of influence to a country that is not our own, and asking for a witnessing to something that many people don't want to talk about," he said.

"And to have so many people in the audience who have lived through a time that the opera reflects, I didn't know what to expect, and what I witnessed, what I experienced ... was such a powerful listening, such a beautiful listening to their story.

"I thought to myself, their story is my story. This is all of our stories. It looks like it's about one country and one war and one genocide, but in fact, it's true for all nations; and if we can actually find the spirit and the love that unites us and remember that, that's what makes it all worthwhile. And my hope is that this story, this play, this opera, was a prayer for that possibility," he added.

"I could tell at the end that there was an absolute ‘yes' in the audience. There was a ‘yes' and an embrace, and that's what every producer wishes for."

Director McQueen was radiant after the show. "This opening night - thrilling.... A culmination of ... years of work to bring the piece here, to bring the piece to the stage, to bring these companies together," he said.

"I feel quite overwhelmed by it all that it's actually here and happening, and it has been received in such a generous way ... I love Cambodia, I love this company ... I've had several very profound experiences in the theatre, and I think this probably tops all of them."


  • Twenty years after Pol Pot died a broken man, his memory looms large

    Two decades have passed, but Mea Chron still stands by Pol Pot. Most days he also stands by the mass murderer’s cremation site, keeping guard in the Khmer Rouge’s last stronghold of Anlong Veng. Pol Pot, the widely reviled despot who spearheaded the

  • Reuters: US Embassy fired 32 staff members for sharing pornography

    The United States Embassy in Phnom Penh has fired 32 non-diplomatic staff members who were allegedly caught exchanging pornographic images and video, including of minors, according to the news agency Reuters. Four sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the content was shared in

  • ‘Trouble’ foreseen in Khmer New Year almanac

    At 9:12am on Saturday, Cambodia’s devout can expect the arrival of Moha Thorathevey, an angel on a peacock holding a trident in one hand and an auspicious serrated wheel in the other. The angel, who has a liking for water hyacinths, will usher in

  • Our 2018 guide to spending Khmer New Year in Phnom Penh

    Khmer New Year festivities are upon us. For the next few days, travellers will be making their way to their home provinces to eat, celebrate, play traditional games and visit a pagoda with offerings. If you will be staying put in Phnom Penh for the