Did you know that no European opera has ever been performed in Cambodia. Not one! Not even under the French! How very remiss of them. Well, that’s all about to change with this fabulous reimagining of Mozart’s Magic Flute – one which incorporates Cambodian subtitles, classical Khmer ballet and music, a stage design based on Hindu mythology, and a truly spectacular location: a 12th Century Angkor Temple, no less.
As firsts go, that’s pretty impressive.
Old Flute, New Tune
So: why this particular opera? As producer Robert Turnbull, who has been involved in artistic restoration and development in Cambodia for 20 years, puts it, the humour and accessibility of the script make it a great first opera for audiences unfamiliar with the medium. Plus, the universality of the “huge ideas” it deals with – truth, justice, overcoming adversity – mean it’s perfect for translating into other languages and cultural contexts.
Korean soprano Cho Hae Ryong, who is part of the show’s central cast, agrees. “The ideas are easy to understand,” she says: they’re the eternal themes of love and war – and, fittingly, returned to the sacred setting of the Chau Say Tevoda temple, part of the Angkor complex.
But as Turnbull explains, there are also specific links between Mozart’s creation and Khmer heritage that make the case for A Cambodian Magic Flute.
First are the plot overlaps between The Magic Flute and the traditional tale of Rama and Sita; both feature a brave warrior travelling into an unfamiliar world to rescue a captured princess, and overcoming a string of trials and challenges along the way. Second is the style of the opera itself, a blend of singing and speaking directly to the audience, which is more in line with the conventions of Cambodian theatre.
Or, in Turnbull’s words: “it’s not easy, but it’s not an impossible opera to perform.”
The Indochine Melting Pot
While this is the first opera to reach the Kingdom, it’s not the first time that Western artistic traditions have influenced Cambodia’s.
French rule in Southeast Asia brought crippling land taxes, untold suffering and (eventually) exposure to Communist ideology, but it also fostered fascinating fusions of artistic and musical traditions, sometimes in the most unlikely of places.
In Vietnam, where French cultural influence was strongest, colonialists built opera houses and Western theatres, imported French literature and imposed a romanised script that (ironically) freed Vietnamese poets from the constraints of Chinese writing structures. All this merging of ideas profoundly shaped Vietnamese art and music, from the highbrow to the popular, and birthed a new folk theatre style called cải lương. This combined traditional comic musicals with the Western-style realist drama introduced by the French.
Meanwhile, in the newly independent Cambodia of the 1960s, led by French-speaking, jazz-loving Prince Sihanouk, this European influence fuelled the creation of a uniquely Khmer sound: the Golden Era surf-rock of Ros Sereysothea, Sinn Sisamouth, Yos Olarang and Pan Ron. Filmmakers like Roem Sophon and Ieu Pannakar returned from honing their craft in France, and Khmer cinema took off internationally. On stage and radio, a politically-charged, spoken-word theatre style called Lakhon Niyeay gained popularity.
And then, of course, came the Khmer Rouge… and almost all art and music, both modern and traditional, was obliterated.
The First Opera
What makes the Cambodian Magic Flute project so exciting is not just that it weaves Cambodian and European musical traditions into something genuinely original, but that it does this with prestigious art forms like opera, Khmer ballet and classical music: art forms that often get bogged down in snobbery or unwillingness to experiment and evolve.
This performance, on the other hand, promises to be anything but conventional. The cast is drawn from all over Southeast Asia, around 60 Khmer musicians will be involved in the final production, and sections of the music have been rewritten specifically for Khmer instruments like the gong and tro (kind of like a violin, with a very long neck).
Added to this, explains Turnbull, the staging incorporates robam borann (classical Cambodian dance) by Amrita Performing Arts and a trial scene reimagined through sbaek thom (shadow puppet theatre), usually reserved in Cambodia for depicting characters from the Ramayana.
When Can I See It?
A project of this size and scope doesn’t happen fast; it took two years just to pin down the permissions to stage the final production at Chau Say Tevoda temple.
Worse, the cast are scattered around the globe, unable to meet regularly for rehearsals. Singaporean baritone Martin Ng, for example, divides his time between training in Italy and rehearsing for performances of La Boheme and Aida in Singapore and Taiwan.
But, after years in the making, it looks as though A Cambodian Magic Flute will finally be scheduled for performance at Chau Say Tevoda temple in 2019. In the meantime, a partial production (“about three-quarters complete”, says Turnbull) will open at Chaktomuk Theatre in March… and on Friday, six of the show’s performers give a taster show at the FCC Mansion in Phnom Penh.
While not quite an Angkor temple, the setting is still pretty special.
“I’ve been here for 20 years, watching it crumble, fearing that someone would knock it down and build a KFC,” chuckles Turnbull. Luckily, this shaky-but-glorious symbol of Phnom Penh’s French-infused heritage is still standing. Here’s hoping that the next wave of Cambodian theatre, reinvigorated by projects like these, survives this time too.