First Modern Cambodian Opera to Premiere in Massachusetts

Classic Arts News   First Modern Cambodian Opera to Premiere in Massachusetts
Where Elephants Weep, the first known contemporary Cambodian opera, receives its world premiere on this weekend in Lowell, Massachusetts, which is home to the United States' second largest Cambodian population. The opera will travel to Cambodia to be premiered in Phnom Penh in January 2008.

The performances in Lowell will be sung in English and Khmer with surtitles in both languages.

Him Sophy, a Russian-trained Cambodian composer who lives in Phnom Penh, was commissioned by Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) to write the score, which draws on classical western, ancient Cambodian and contemporary popular American music.

The music features a 12th-century Cambodian pin peat ensemble, an array of traditional Cambodian instruments, a Western-style rock band and a string quartet from the Lowell-based New England Orchestra, led by its founder Kay George Roberts.

Tony "Re-al" Roun, 28, who fled Cambodia with his family at age 5, narrates the opera through rap. He told The Boston Herald, "From my experience, the music I am composing speaks a lot about identity crisis."

The libretto is by playwright and Cambodia specialist Catherine Filloux. T. John Burt, theatre producer and Chair Emeritus of CLA, directs. Also involved in the collaboration is Amrita Performing Arts, a non-profit devoted to the revival of Cambodian music and classical dance in the wake of their near-extinction at the hands of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which massacred most of the country's artists and intellectuals.

Speaking about the mass murder conducted by Pol Pot's government between 1975 and 1979, Burt told the Herald, "Silence and fear were dominating. The arts were the opposite. (They) take a real voice and enormous risk."

Beni Chhun, development officer for CLA, told the paper that the demise of most of Cambodia's master performers was "a huge, incredibly devastating loss. It's an oral tradition, so the work hasn't been written down. If the master knew the songs and didn't pass them down, when he was killed, they were just lost."

Where Elephants Weep is about Cambodians returning to their country following 30 years of civil strife. Loosely based on an ancient Cambodian love story, the opera follows Sam, a refugee from the Khmer Rouge who leaves America to return to his homeland and falls in love with Bopha, a Cambodian pop star. The opera also alludes to the experiences of CLA founder Arn Chorn-Pond and composer Him Sophy, who both survived Khmer Rouge labor camps.

"Cambodia has never had a modern opera like this before," said Him in a statement. "The work examines and speaks to how Cambodia is changing, how Western and Cambodian cultures mix together, and how our histories and futures are connected."

Performances take place at Lowell High School's Cyrus W. Irish Auditorium on April 27-29. For information, call 1-978-446-7162 or visit

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