Cambodian Opera - Where Elephants Weep
by Kathleen Pierce, Lowell Sun, Mass., USA
Beautiful sounds emanate from the practice room on the second floor of Lowell High School. Through gongs, bamboo flutes, long-neck lutes and electric guitars, a musical landscape of Cambodia comes into view. The orchestra for Cambodian opera Where Elephants Weep, has been hard at practice for the past week. Arriving at 2:30 p.m. and calling it quits at 10 p.m., this cadre of Cambodian musicians could not be more disparate. Traditional musicians from Cambodian academia sit cross-legged on the floor. Messy-haired modern rockers, plucked from the rock clubs of Phnom Penh, sit in chairs. The all-male ensemble, which spans the ages of 18 to 63, seamlessly weave the sounds of old Cambodia and its stirring rhythms with the slow, smoky chords of rock. The backbone of this one-of-a-kind opera arrived a week ago in Lowell and will practice eight hours a day until previews begin April 27.
Seated in the front row, Him Sophy, the composer, has a wide smile. He is relieved that all 10 musicians got their visas in time. Now that that's out of the way, his eyes are on his dream. "I saw Rent, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, all the American operas," when he called New York home for a year. Hooking up with producer John Burt, Sophy, who received classical training in Moscow, is embarking on a creative journey that will likely take him around the world. To achieve the sounds of East meets West, he created instruments and techniques, such as putting four mallets instead of two in the hands of the xylophone player. That instrument, called roneat pluah, was made fuller by adding a second set of wooden bars.
Sophy has composed 50 or 60 songs in both Khmer and English for the six main characters and chorus in this eclectic coming-of-age love story. The musical styles range from traditional, hip-hop, rap, classical and strings. "It's the first opera of mine and Cambodia. With the creation of musical instruments, I am proud of my work," said Sophy, 44. That excitement echoed through the high school last week, as teachers and members of the Cambodian community popped in to meet Sophy and hear the soundtrack of home. The refreshingly current opera, which involves a Karaoke singer, has a larger mission than sheer entertainment. With so many Cambodians calling Lowell home, educators are using the wealth of visiting musicians as edifying starting points. The high school is planning workshops for students and the Light of Cambodian Children is searching for the best essay on what it means to be Cambodian and American today. "I think this would be a valuable experience for young people in America, not only by relaying the story itself, but all the experiences around it. This is the first time I've seen something like this," said Sayon Soeun, executive director of the Lowell-based Light of Cambodian Children. The opera's librettist, Catherine Filloux, sees the bridge of old and new styles as a rebirth of Cambodian culture that will help displaced natives find a way to keep their roots and move on. "I think this piece has a lot of fun in it. It explores darker issues, but a lot of the fun, the joy (of Cambodia) is there," said Filloux.
First preview performances for this ground-breaking opera will take place in Lowell, Mass., USA on April 27, 28 & 29, 2007. The opera is a new commission by Cambodian Living Arts, a project of World Education. Find out more at the excellent Where Elephants Weep website.