Two million Cambodians died during Pol Pot's genocide campaign in the 1970s, including 90 percent of the country's artists.
Since then, Cambodia's artistic culture has suffered. But this weekend the first known contemporary Cambodian opera previews in Lowell, home to the United States' second- largest Cambodian population.
The love story, which fuses traditional Cambodian music with rock and roll, will eventually head to Phnom Penh next year. WBUR's Andrea Shea dropped in on a rehearsal at Lowell High School and has this story.
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ANDREA SHEA: The new opera is called 'Where Elephants Weep.' It opens with the bleating of an ancient elephant horn. On stage right a raised platform supports 5 Cambodian musicians. They wield a variety of exotic, ancient-looking instruments: wood winds, gongs, drums, a long-necked lute. The show's Executive Producer John Burt says he jumped through hoops to get this ensemble into America for the performance. And, he says, it was tough to track them down in Cambodia.
JOHN BURT: Everything is on the grass roots level in Cambodia and there's extraordinary talent living right underneath the surface.
SHEA: Burt is also co-founder of the Lowell based preservation organization 'Cambodian Living Arts.' He says he started the group with Arn Chorn-Pond, a well-known human rights activist and flute player who survived Pol Pot's rampage.
BURT: One of the things that happens with the devastation of a genocide period when so many people perish who hold the history of those traditions is that it diminishes the possibility of new ideas to emerge.
SHEA: And what could be newer than a Cambodian opera hybrid that fuses traditional music with the most Western of music forms: rock and roll. A Cambodian rock band warms up stage left. At this recent rehearsal American Librettist Catherin Filloux goes over some changes to the script. Sam is the main character in the opera. He was raised in the United States after his family fled Pol Pot, but Burt says he goes back to Cambodia to seek his cultural identity, his roots, and his soul.
BURT: And in his return he is confronted not only with not only the ancient traditional world of Cambodia but the modern world that he is in conflict with.
SHEA: Once home Sam falls in love with a pop singer name Bopah. Burt says the Romeo and Juliet-style plot line represents the conflict between East and West. And the musical mashup does, too. For the opera's composer, Him Sophy, incorporating rock and roll works conceptually and artistically.
HIM SOPHY: Because Sam he grew up in US he got big influence from American culture, especially rock music, I think the best in the world is American rock music...important that you need to compose good music for rock for traditional, for classical, western whatever that's no problem.
SHEA: Him Sophy one of 3 classically trained composers in all of Cambodia. He usually writes for Western-style orchestras, not rock bands or traditional Cambodian musicians.
SOPHY: They play together with the rock band sometime separately sometimes soloists only rock sometimes only traditional, and then they come together and they have a different sound that you never heard before.
SHEA: But it's also risky to make something new by marrying musics from two very different cultures, according to Mark Rossi. Rossi is a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He's a composer, Jazz pianist and world musician with an expertise in Indian-Jazz fusion.
MARK ROSSI: It's got to work on it's own terms and that it's got to say something new in a way that's never been said before. And it's very doable in the hands of a good composer with a good imagination and a good sense of balancing the musical forces and helping to find the differences and helping to find common ground to unify them.
SHEA: Composer Him Sophy is thrilled to have a chance to work on a synthesis such as 'Where Elephants Weep' because he says there are noopportunities to create something like this at home in Cambodia. The artistic environment there is grim and hasn't recovered since the time of the Killing Fields. Sophy himself almost died in a labor camp in the mid-1970's.
SOPHY: I was only a teenager but I worked so hard to survive myself my body looked as skeleton and no energy. After the genocidal regime I thought I was a person who lost very much, I lost my youth, I lost my time but I think my brain still worked very well so I needed to work very hard in my studies.
SHEA: He continued his musical studies in Russia. And now...years later...Sophy is working with electric guitars and Cambodian-American rap artists...such as Lowell-based Tony Real. Real plays a guard in the opera and says as a second-generation refugee he's deeply connected to his homeland.
TONY REAL: We want Cambodia to be known for its arts and culture, not just for the killing fields, and now its beginning.
SHEA: And with 'Where Elephants Weep' composer Sophy hopes to push Cambodian culture forward.
SOPHY: Because Rock and Roll is music right now, not long time ago, and traditional ensemble in Cambodia exists a very long time ago...you can say 100 years ago or 1000 years ago and now we combine with the Rock and roll because we live for the future.
SHEA: But, Him Sophy adds, we should never forget the past. For WBUR I'm Andrea Shea.
This program aired on April 27, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.