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Khmer opera singer sets sights on world stage

Khmer opera singer sets sights on world stage

If you wander down a rutted dirt road on the edge of Phnom Penh, past grilled banana

stands and children peddling bicycles, you might hear the strains of an Italian aria

drifting across a high fence.

Sethisak now lives in Phnom Penh and is seeking funding for further study overseas.

To say that the voice is among the best in Cambodia might seem like faint praise

since there is so little competition. But Khoun Sethisak, 33, is regarded as a world-class

tenor. He has competed against some of the finest singers in the former Soviet Union

and won one of Russia's highest awards for vocalists.

Yet his main audience lies many thousands of miles away from the small house in Phnom

Penh were he practices for up to 4 hours each day.

For those who associate the corpulence of Pavarotti and Domingo with the majestic

sounds of opera, Sethisak offers a surprise. Although he stands only 5 feet 5 inches

tall, he leaves little doubt that his voice could fill a concert hall.

But the opportunities to prove it here are few. And while opera is difficult career

choice in any country, Sethisak's career path has been as bumpy as the dirt roads

in his neighbourhood.

He has spent the past 15 years practicing many hours a day from the bitter cold of

Moscow to the tropical heat of Asia. He has traveled the world, studied for eight

years at one of the world's most elite music conservatories, learned to speak six

languages including French, Italian and English and survived for five years on a

diet of Russian potatoes.

His music career began when he was nine. Like many Cambodians of his generation,

he spent the Pol Pot years in a labor camp. Once the country was freed from the regime,

he began to sing, performing traditional Khmer songs on radio and TV.

Khoun Sethisak receives third place in prestigious Russian competition 'Bella Voce', 1996.

During the early 1980s, communist states such as Vietnam and East Germany sent musicians

and teachers to Cambodia. For a brief time, Sethisak says, the music scene flourished.

He completed high school with distinction in music and was then sent to Russia to

study piano and music theory at the Moscow Conservatory of Music.

For a young Khmer to arrive at the elite Russian school was an extraordinary accomplishment.

Under an arrangement with the USSR, thousands of Cambodians went to study in the

Soviet Union during the 1980s for subjects such as engineering and architecture.

But the standards for the Russian musical academy were particularly high. Many of

Sethisak's colleagues who intended to study music were rejected by the school. Over

four years, only two others joined the Conservatory.

However, after Sethisak's initial acceptance came tough times. The communist alliance

fell apart in 1991 and Russia cut its aid for Cambodia. The conservatory asked Sethisak

to pay tuition, although he made no money besides an occasional stipend from his


He managed to negotiate support for his fees and accommodation but had no income.

He survived for five years on a diet of potatoes donated from the farms of his Russian


Sethisak studied music in Russia for eight years. "On the piano, I couldn't compete with the Russians ... but the voice is like a mystery. It's something from nature," he says.

"All I ate was potatoes," he says. "For breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Baked potatoes, fried potatoes, boiled potatoes. I ate potatoes for five years. Now

I hate potatoes."

Even today, the mention of French fries brings a sickened look to his face.

And the demands of his training were no less grueling.

Sethisak spent five years practicing piano for up to eight hours a day as well as

studying composition and theory in Moscow. But his voice, still unrecognized and

untrained, was not discovered until 1994 after he sang a traditional Khmer song to

celebrate the end of his diploma.

His teacher was so impressed she asked him to audition for the school's singing program.

He was immediately accepted for a vocal diploma and began yet another course of study

when he was 26 years old.

"It's a little bit late for opera singers but it's not like learning the piano

where you have to start so young," he says.

He proved an adept student. After only two years, he entered a major national competition,

the 'Bella Voce', and took third place. He also won the 'Best Russian Vocal Performance'

in the same competition.

He laughs at the irony of a Cambodian beating the finest Russian singers for the


"On the piano, I couldn't compete with the Russians because they are so strong

and they have played since such a young age, but the voice is like a mystery,"

he says. "It's something from nature."

Two years after beginning his singing studies, Sethisak left Moscow and potatoes

behind. He returned to Cambodia to seek funding for further study and traveled to

Europe to perform concerts and find sponsors. It was not until 1998 that he was 'discovered'

yet again.

An opera-phile living in Phnom Penh heard the singer perform. Calling Sethisak the

"fourth tenor", worthy of accompanying the celebrated trio of Italian singers,

the admirer persuaded some wealthy American friends to sponsor the young Cambodian.

For two years, Sethisak lived in San Francisco taking private lessons and performing

concerts. But after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, his donors could

no longer support him in the US. He was forced to return to Cambodia again.

He has lived in Phnom Penh since then, singing every day and practicing piano. He

also teaches privately but says it is more for love than money as few of his students

can afford to pay.

"It's very difficult to be a musician in Cambodia," he says. Even finding

pianists to accompany him and instruments to practice on is a constant challenge

and limits his performance opportunities.

One would think his skills would be highly sought after in his homeland. Only three

Khmer students completed music studies at the elite Russian school. Yet while the

other two teach at the Royal University of Fine Arts, Sethisak is unable to get a


"In Cambodia, if you don't know someone to give you a job it doesn't matter

what you know," he says. "The whole country is corrupted."

He hopes to find a donor and continue his studies overseas- perhaps in Italy, the

birthplace of his beloved composer, Puccini. Once he is fully trained he plans to

live in Cambodia and share his knowledge with his country.

"I want to be in Cambodia because I want to bring the opera culture to the country,"

he says. "We don't have any education or singers here."

While his passion is for Western opera, he also loves Khmer music such as Bassac

opera, the traditional musical drama with both instruments and sung dialogue. He

is keen to revive the traditional musical style, as well as combine the two art forms.

"We can keep the traditional culture but also make it more," he says. "We

can take experience from Khmer and experience from the West to cross cultures and

create something new. I love Khmer music but it is important to understand the whole

world, not just yourself."

These sentiments are shared by Charlie Todd, director of Silapak Khmer Amatak, meaning

Cambodia Living Arts, an NGO that supports Khmer culture.

"We feel that for the traditions to survive, they need to keep adapting and

changing," he says.

Todd speaks passionately of the importance of supporting the arts and keeping them


"The arts carry a form of DNA of a culture. What it is to be Khmer relates to

the culture," he says. "It's going beyond survival for Cambodia now. Survival

is not just food and medicine. We have to keep the living arts alive."

Musicians such as Sethisak are an important part of this, he says, and his organization

is working to increase the tenor's public exposure with the hopes of finding him

a sponsor.

"Sethisak is a creative genius," Todd says. "It's amazing to watch

him work."

For Sethisak, his sights are fixed firmly on the opera stages of the world. "If

I can earn money I would like to build an opera house here - that's my dream. I also

want to take Khmer music to the world and [music] from the world to Cambodia."

It's a long road to success, and many would have given up by now. Training is very

expensive with voice coaches charging as much as $300 per hour. And even then success

is not guaranteed.

But Sethisak is determined.

"I positively think that if you are really good, you will get there. You're

going to make it," he says.


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