Khmer Bassac opera survived the Khmer Rouge regime but is steadily fading from
the cultural landscape under the influence of poverty, television and karaoke. BOU
SAROEUN looks at the past, present and increasingly uncertain future of this
classic Cambodian folk art.
Thach Sang Sosac - "struggling together" to keep culture alive.
Tou Sdach are actors who specialize in the portrayal of kings.
Chan Phal has a fear that no previous Tou Sdach have ever had: when he retires there
will be no younger actor to take his place.
After more than two decades as a leading actor in Bassac opera performances across
Cambodia, Phal and other Bassac actors say that public interest in their art is at
an historic low, and that the end may be near.
The villains, Bassac enthusiasts say, are a combination of poverty and the corrosive
influence of foreign cultural influences undermining previously sacrosanct Cambodian
"We are old now and cannot find the actors to replace us," said Phal, Chief
Actor of the Phnom Penh Fine Art's Department. "I am very worried. Poverty is
the main reason for the lack of human resources."
What is at stake, Phal and his fellow performers say, is a tradition of Cambodian
operatic storytelling that goes back centuries and has evolved as a hybrid of rival
Chinese and Vietnamese operatic forms.
Founded in Bassac district in Kampuchea Krom's Preah Trapang Province (now part of
Vietnam), Bassac opera is to Cambodia what Beijing Opera is to China.
With heavy makeup and ornate costumes, Bassac is typified by plotlines fraught with
magic, evil villains and sword-wielding heroes.
But it is the music - both instrumental and the opera-style sung dialogue - that
distinguishes Bassac from other traditional forms of Khmer drama.
Notwithstanding the more recent Preah Neakasen, performed at the request of Prime
Minister Hun Sen, Bassac opera consists of performances of 155 classic Bassac songs
that have a variety of Khmer, Vietnamese, Chinese and even French origins and inspiration.
With performances lasting between three hours to as long as three days, Bassac was
a fixture of Cambodian rural and urban life prior to the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover.
Bassac opera troupes, like the circus troupes of Europe and pre-industrial America,
evolved along family lines and allowed generations of theater families to step into
the roles of their forefathers.
But now Phal says the young recruits he selects for possible Bassac roles routinely
run away after they know how to dance or sing to seek more lucrative karaoke or nightclub
"They think with their stomachs," Phal says of the flagging motivation
younger artists have for dedication to Bassac.
According to Phal, the country ignores nurturing the cultural heritage embodied by
Bassac at its own peril.
"We engage ourselves in a battle for [performers and spectators] minds and souls,"
Phal said of the role that Bassac plays as a foundation of traditional Cambodian
culture. "We are as important as teachers or professors."
Chek March, a master Bassac performer, noted that during the French Protectorate
and Sangkum Reastyr Niyum eras, the government supplemented Bassac actors' salaries
to allow a high standard of living. "In the past we trained every day and did
not think about having to make a living but now food and survival occupy our thoughts
rather than training," she said.
The threat to Bassac opera has been noted with alarm by Chan Thy, Deputy Director
of Traditional Performance Programme Production at TVK, who attributes the decline
of the traditional opera to cultural imperialism by Cambodia's neighbors.
"I don't want to mention who steals our [Khmer traditions] then shows to the
world that these arts belong to them," she said. "To prevent from stealing
[our culture] we must make Bassac opera a priority to show the world it belongs to
To show support for Bassac, in late 2000 TVK and other Cambodian media started to
televise performances of Bassac and other traditional Khmer theater.
One of the more popular of these efforts has been Apsara TV's live Sunday Bassac
performances at Phnom Penh's Parkway shopping center. But according to Heang Sokhan,
Apsara TV and Radio's Concert Programmer, difficulties finding commercial sponsors
for the performances make his efforts an uphill battle.
"I want to show the younger generation their Khmer national identity,"
he said "We are not conservative, we just want to show what Khmer young never
have a chance to see nowadays."
According to Arn Chorn-Pond, a Massachusetts-based producer of Cambodian music CDs
and a member of the Cambodian Master Performers Program (CMPP) in the US, the efforts
of Apsara TV to make traditional Bassac theater more mainstream are to be applauded.
"They can take our body but they can not take our soul," he said of the
importance of preserving traditional Cambodian drama.
John Hert, Executive Producer of Mere Magic Productions and a member of the CMPP
steering committee, told the Post during a Bassac opera performance on the outskirts
of Phnom Penh that efforts to preserve such cultural arts are at a critical stage.
"It's a real wake up call for us to help them," Hert said. "We're
willing to support and find funds to help them,"adding that traditional arts
had the potential to act as powerful tools in education, health care and morality.
With such support, Phal believes that there may still be hope for the survival of
Bassac theater after his retirement and that of his fellow performers.
"I think [the interest in] Bassac opera is starting to wake up," he said.
"Now our people are starting to understand more about their culture and are
differentiating what belongs to us and what belongs to other countries."
After 1979, the couple returned to the traditional style of Bassac opera and prefer
to discuss the present health of Bassac rather than its propagandist perversion under
Family keeps traditions alive
Thach Sang Sosac should have enough to worry about with nine wives and 39 children
living together under one roof.
But it is survival of the Bassac opera tradition that members of his family have
performed for generations that preoccupies him even more than finding a seat at meal
time and keeping his wives' names straight.
"Now, if we don't struggle together to show the world what culture we have it
will be lost," Sang Sosac laments. "Then other countries will take [our
traditions] as their own, and we won't be able to blame those countries because it
will be our fault for abandoning our culture."
Born in 1947 in Kampuchea Krom, Sang Sosac became a full-time Bassac theater performer
when he was 26. In 1985 he moved his family from Vietnam to Cambodia to, in his words,
"serve the cultural needs" of Cambodians.
In a very personal effort to help seed the next generation of Bassac opera performers,
Sang Sosac has trained all of his children and his wives as Bassac theater performers
at their home in Trang Pang Sila village about 30 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh.
That training is regularly put to the test during Bassac productions they mount for
Sang Sosac says Cambodian civil servants and media are responsible for what he says
is a retreat of traditional cultural arts such as Bassac in favor of "foreign
"I pity Hun Sen, who has urged people to help to promote [Cambodian] culture,
but [government officials] at the low level do not respect, and ignore what he says,"
Sang Sosac said.
Reach Thi, 36, one of Sang Sosac's wives and fellow actors, says she and her six
children all willingly partake in the "family business" of Bassac theater.
"We do not force them to train," she said.
"They like Bassac theater the same as their father," she said, pointing
to her husband who is reclining in the corner being fanned with palm leaves by several
of his other wives.
Sang Sosac warns that his family alone cannot be depended on to guarantee the legacy
of Bassac opera.
"If I go back to Vietnam they will buy all of us," he said. Now [the Vietnamese]
are trying to buy [Bassac opera] performers in Kampuchea Krom."
Pol Pot's revolutionary Bassac
One of the bizarre peculiarities of the Khmer Rouge regime was the fickle nature
of its homicidal wrath.
While Khmer ballet and most other artistic pursuits were proscribed in 1975-1979
Democratic Kampuchea, the cultural hybrid of Bassac Opera was adopted by the Khmer
Rouge as a propaganda tool.
Choun Son, 47, and his wife Sim Yen, 52, were both KR Bassac opera performers, forced
to turn in their ornate costumes and heavy theatrical make-up for more suitably austere
black pajamas and red kramas.
In their village of Prek Lavea in Ksach Kandal district of Kandal province, Son and
Yen recall being mobilized to provide artistic inspiration to the masses.
Rather than celebrating the heroic endeavors of ancient kings, KR Bassac opera was
used to disseminate party policy on everything from the need to improve rice production
and dike and railway repair to warning the masses of the implacable threat posed
by the Vietnamese.
And reminiscent of Chinese propaganda devices, Bassac was employed to praise the
sacrifices of "ideal cadre" who gave their lives for the regime.
"One of the pieces we did was about 'Cadre Say', who refused to hide in a bunker
during an American air raid and was killed while shooting down an American fighter,"
Choice in the subject matter of their KR-era operas was not open to question.
"If anyone complained or asked questions about the opera, they would be sent
to be 'educated'," Yen said, using the KR terminology for extrajudicial execution.