On Saturday night we went to ‘Where elephants weep’ a rock opera that spins a unique twist on Tum Teav, the Cambodian version of Romeo and Juliet. The story line may be classic opera but the music most certainly was not. ‘Where elephants weep’, the brain child of composer Him Sophy, American producer John Burt and librettist Catherine Filloux, capably mixes the high pitched nasal wailing of traditional Khmer vocals, a keening buffalo horn, the rippling rhythmic mass of a reinvented roneat pluah (a traditional Cambodian xylophone adapted to its task with an added row of gongs and an extra set of mallets) and the sombre moan of bamboo flutes with the smoky pulse of the base guitar and the familiar rifts of a rock drum beat.
The story goes that two young Cambodian Americans, refugees from the Khmer Rouge genocide, have returned to Cambodia to reconnect with their spiritual roots by becoming novice Monks for a few months. Sam, who was a successful music producer for Sony, is finding the change and the memories particularly tough and leans on his more grounded friend, Dara. Then he meets Bopha, a beautiful but already betrothed Cambodian pop singer with an arrogant, ladder climbing, gangster, businessman for a brother and things get really tricky. When Sams request to disrobe is denied he does it anyway and goes in search of the exquisite Bopha. He finds her, sleeps with her, nearly loses her, nearly loses himself, finds himself again, loses Dara, finds Bopha who has found herself and finally in true operatic style releases Bopha to be herself, all for love.
Most of the lyrics were in American accented English with subtitles in both Khmer and English. The production, which took a stunning 7 years to come to fruition, was professional and polished. It began at the Cambodian Living Arts Centre in Lowell, Massachusetts (where a significant number of Cambodians settled after escaping their war torn homeland in the late 70’s and early 80’s) where a dedicated bunch of both Cambodian and Americans are working hard at reviving the traditional arts that were all but wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. ‘It's the first opera of mine and Cambodia. With the creation of musical instruments, I am proud of my work,’ said Sophy to the Lowell Sun (April2007). Seen as a ‘bridge between old and new styles’ it is hoped it will indeed spark a rebirth of Cambodian culture especially for it’s displaced. ‘I think when any culture is interrupted by the tragedy of war, it's particularly important to go back and visit those (ancient) traditions, but we are in the 21st century and it's also important to bring those traditions forward,’ offered John Burt after Saturday night’s show.
We certainly enjoyed the experience and will definitely be on the lookout for more. In the meantime we will be in the audience for the Phnom Players Christmas panto entitled “Aladdin under the sea’ and I have just bought tickets for W!ld Rice’s production of ‘Snow White’ in Singapore on the 20th.
After debuting in Lowell in April 2007 the 'Where elephants weep' has finally made its Cambodian premier here at the Chenla Theatre and will run for 6 sell out shows.
I found this on You Tube. It gives you some idea of how it all fit together.