East Meets West 'Where Elephants Weep'

A new opera debuting this weekend in Lowell, Mass., features a blend of traditional Cambodian music, Western classical, and rock. The love story, sung in English and Khmer, unfolds in the horrific aftermath of Pol Pot's genocidal regime.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And finally: a story about an artistic response to the genocide in Cambodia during the 1970s. This weekend marked the premiere of an opera that fuses traditional Cambodian music with rock and roll. It's a love story sung in English and Khmer that plays out against the backdrop of a land torn by war and terror.

For the debut, the producers chose Lowell, Massachusetts, a city with a large population of Cambodian immigrants. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR has our report.

ANDREA SHEA: The new opera is called "Where Elephants Weep." It opens with the bleating of an ancient elephant horn.

(Soundbite of elephant horn)

SHEA: Onstage, right, a raised platform supports five Cambodian musicians. They wield a variety of exotic, ancient-looking instruments: woodwinds, gongs, drums, and a long-necked lute.

(Soundbite of Cambodian music ensemble)

SHEA: 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.

Mr. JOHN BURT (Executive Producer, "Where Elephants Weep"): Everything is very grass - on the grassroots level in Cambodia, and they're - there's extraordinary talent living right underneath the surface.

SHEA: Burt is also cofounder 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.

Mr. BURT: One of the things that happens in the devastation of a genocide period where so many people perished 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 instrumentation with the most Western of music forms - rock and roll?

(Soundbite of rock band playing)

SHEA: This Cambodian rock band warms upstage left. At this recent rehearsal, American librettist Catherine Filloux goes over some changes to the script. Most of the dialogue is in English for this run, but that might change when it goes to Cambodia.

Ms. CATHERINE FILLOUX (Librettist, "Where Elephants Weep"): …cut Sam's line, we have one just like it, "where I grew up…"

SHEA: Sam is the main character in the opera. He was raised in the United States after his family fled Pol Pot, but Burt says Sam goes back to Cambodia to find his cultural identity, his roots, and his soul.

Mr. BURT: And in his return, he is confronted 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 named Bopah. Burt says the "Romeo and Juliet"-style plot represents the conflict between East and West, and the musical mash-up does, too. For the opera's composer, Him Sophy, incorporating rock and roll works conceptually and artistically.

Mr. HIM SOPHY (Composer, "Where Elephants Weep"): Because Sam, he grow up in the United State, 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 a good music for rock, for traditional, for classical, Western, whatever, I think.

SHEA: Him Sophy is one of three classically trained composers in all of Cambodia. He usually writes for Western-style orchestras, not rock bands or traditional Cambodian musicians.

Mr. SOPHY: They play together with a rock band, sometimes separately, sometimes soloist only rock, sometime only traditional. And then they come together and have another sound that you never heard before.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Will she hear the sound…

SHEA: But it's also risky to make something new by marrying musics from two very different cultures, according to Marc 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.

Professor MARC ROSSI (Piano, Berklee College of Music): It's got to work on its own terms, and it's got to say something new in a way that hasn't 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 in helping to highlight the differences and also finding 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 no opportunities 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-1970s.

Mr. SOPHY: My body looked a skeleton and no energy. After the genocide regime, I lost my youth, I lost my time, but I think my brain still worked very well, and so I need to work very hard in my study.

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.

(Soundbite of Tony Real rapping)

SHEA: Real plays a guard in the opera and says as a second-generation refugee, he's deeply connected to his homeland.

Mr. TONY REAL (Rap Artist): We want Cambodia to be known for its arts and culture, not for the killing fields. And now, it's beginning.

SHEA: And with "Where Elephants Weep," composer Sophy hopes to push Cambodian culture forward.

Mr. SOPHY: Because the rock and roll music is the music right now, not a long time ago. And traditional musical ensemble in Cambodia exist very long time ago. And now we combined with the rock and roll, because we live for the future.

SHEA: But, Him Sophy adds, we should never forget the past. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.

Unidentified Man: (Singing in Khmer)

ELLIOTT: Cambodian audiences will see "Where Elephants Weep" next year in Phnom Penh.

(Soundbite of music from "Where Elephants Weep")

ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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