Making space for opera

The Cambodia Opera Project, an initiative of the Japanese Government’s Department of Culture and endorsed by the Cambodian Ministry of Fine Arts, kicked off last year with a production in September 2018 of the one act opera Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni.  This weekend, at the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra again, they present two performances of Pagliacci by Ruggero LeoncavalloLeng Pleng sat down this week with singer and the driving force behind the project, Ai Iwasaki.

“I’ve been here for eight years, and I have had the dream to have opera in Cambodia,” she explains.  “I started singing when I was seven years old.  I studied singing at the university in Japan, and then in Italy for three years.  Now I am teaching singing at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, and I am also involved in running The Piano Shop and holding other music classes.”

The collaborative nature of staging an opera is one of the forces that excites Ai about the medium.  “In opera we need a lot of people’s help, lots of different kinds of people, different professionals, different specialties.  It is important not only in Cambodia, but in many countries, to have people get together from different disciplines to make one thing all together.”

In rehearsal for Pagliacci – supplied. 

The Cambodian audience’s lack of exposure to opera has influenced the choices of both last year’s and this year’s pieces.  “Last year we did Cavalleria Rusticana, a total length of about one hour.  Pagliacci is a little bit longer.  Many operas are quite long, and probably the Cambodian people who are not familiar with this kind of performance can easily get bored, so we chose these works as an introduction.  These two operas are in the verismo style [Italian: realism]: what is happening on the stage is what is happening in real society.  We want to make reality on the stage, and that will be more familiar, and probably easier to understand.  ”

The world pagliacci is Italian for clowns, and the story takes place in a village when a travelling performance troupe passes through, using the play-within-a-play technique to examine the cross-overbetween real life and play acting.   To further place the work in context, this production sets the opera in Battambang in the 1930s.  “Our artistic supervisor, Prince Ravivaddhana Monipong Sisowath, told us that Battambang at that time was a very international city, with many different nationalities coming and going.  So we also have invited the circus from Battambang, Phare Ponleu Selpak, to participate, and also many students who are studying dancing at the Royal University.”

In rehearsal for Pagliacci – supplied. 

Cambodian participation is growing, Ai says.  “Some of my students will join in the choir, and also play small roles.  One Cambodian tenor, Khuon Sethisak, will play one of the lead roles for the Friday night performance.  However, opera is not only about singers, there is also the orchestra, and quite considerable numbers of orchestral players are from Cambodia, and the number has increased from last year.  My hope is that Cambodian participation will increase little by little, year by year.  We think it’s important to continue this.  It’s easy to do one time, but continuing is important.”

And next year’s opera will be?  “We have some ideas but we are still thinking.”

Pagliacci will be staged on Friday 11 and Saturday 12 October as part of the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra Classical Music Festival.  Tickets – selling fast – are available here or at the venue.

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