Cambodia's first rock opera will premiere in Phnom Penh next month, a cultural milestone in the Southeast Asian country where performing arts were banned during the brutal Khmer Rouge years. "Where Elephants Weep" is an East-meets-West blend of traditional Cambodian music and Western rock that is modeled after "Romeo and Juliet" and inspired by the Broadway musical "Rent." Organizers said Wednesday the show will open a 10-day run Nov. 28 in a converted movie theater in the capital, Phnom Penh, a year later than its planned debut at the end of 2007.
The show was commissioned by Cambodian Living Arts, a project of the Boston-based nonprofit organization World Education, which seeks to revive traditional Cambodian performing arts and inspire contemporary artistic expression among Cambodians. Charley Todd, a co-president of the CLA's governing board, said the opera had a successful preview last year in Lowell, Mass., which has a sizable community of Cambodian refugees. But producers needed extra time for fine-tuning. It is expected to later tour in other countries, including the United States, South Korea and Singapore.
Arts and entertainment were banned when the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia between 1975-79 and killed some 1.7 million people through starvation, disease, overwork and execution. Execution sites from the time now serve as grim attractions for tourists visiting Cambodia. "Where Elephants Weep" is an operatic take on "Tum Teav," the Cambodian version of "Romeo and Juliet." It tells the story a Cambodian-American who lost his father during the Khmer Rouge era and returns home after Cambodia's civil war to trace his roots. In Phnom Penh, he meets and falls in love with a Cambodian woman who works as a karaoke singer.
The music was composed by the Russian-trained Cambodian maestro Him Sophy. He was inspired by the musical genre of the rock opera "Rent," which he saw twice during a trip to New York City. Cambodian musicians in the performance use electric guitars, electronic drums, keyboards and traditional instruments like buffalo horns, bamboo flutes, gongs and the chapei, a long-neck lute with two nylon strings. After seven years of work, Him Sophy said he expected a celebration - both on stage and in the country.
"It is going to be a big national cultural event," Him Sophy said. "And the entire team is committed to making it happen flawlessly and perfectly."
By Ker Munthit of the Associated Press