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."