If Cambodia Can Learn to Sing Again
By PATRICIA COHEN
IT seems fitting that Arn Chorn-Pond should take on the inordinately ambitious goal of trying to rescue
His talent for playing the Khmer flute is the reason he survived the genocidal four-year reign of Pol Pot; the chief of the children's labor camp liked the way the 9-year-old Arn played the military and patriotic anthems that were based on familiar Khmer songs. Few were so lucky: among the estimated 1.7 million murdered by the Khmer Rouge were more than 90 percent of the country's artists and performers. For centuries, musicians had passed down their knowledge and skill orally, without recordings or transcriptions; now there are hardly any left. "We are on the brink of extinction," Mr. Chorn-Pond said. "This incredible culture has been reduced to the Killing Fields."
Mr. Chorn-Pond, 39, was stopping briefly in
For seven years now, the two have been working to record and teach
Yet the men quickly realized that simply preserving the ancient arts wasn't enough, that without creating original work, the music would be like a pinned butterfly. They needed to provide new commissions, inspire new young artists. Mr. Burt recalled hearing that the ruins of Angkor Wat had become the largest single tourist destination in
So Mr. Burt, who is a producer as well as a philanthropist, came up with the idea of commissioning a new kind of opera that would shift the familiar focus from the Killing Fields and embody their project; it would integrate Cambodian and American, modern and traditional music, instruments and styles. He chose opera because it is one of the most popular forms of musical theater in
"We've never had a Cambodian-American opera," Mr. Chorn-Pond said. It is an example of "new musical forms growing out of the traditional."
It was also Mr. Burt's idea to base the story partly on Mr. Chorn-Pond's preservation efforts. In the opera, "Where Elephants Weep," Sam, a Cambodian refugee who escaped to
Mr. Chorn-Pond's story, unhappily, differs in many important details from Sam's. Mr. Chorn-Pond did not escape the Khmer Rouge, who took over in 1975. Most of his family, which had run a musical theater for four generations, were murdered, including 9 of his 11 siblings. Sent to a labor camp with 700 others, Arn was one of five children picked to learn an instrument to play military songs. An old man with white hair taught him the khimm, a dulcimer, warning: "I'm not going to be here long. Learn well, this is your life." Arn never knew the man's name. After five days, he was taken to a mangrove field and killed.
When three of the five boys turned out to be insufficiently skilled, they, too, were taken to the mangroves.
Arn met another music teacher, Yoeun Mek, who taught him the flute, and the two helped each other stay alive. "I stole food for him," Mr. Chorn-Pond said, although the penalty for such a crime was death.
Arn's musical ability did not exempt him from the Khmer Rouge's other requirements: killing, observing daily executions, even witnessing occasional cannibalism. When the Vietnamese invaded in 1978, he was forced into the army. "Some refused to take the gun," he said, "but if they don't take it, they shoot them."
He eventually slipped away and made his way through the jungle to a refugee camp across the Thai border. Plucked from thousands of desperate children, Arn and a few others were adopted by the Rev. Peter Pond, a Congregationalist minister who worked at the camp. In a 1984 interview in The New York Times Magazine, when he was about 18, Arn told Gail Sheehy, "I am nobody before"; now, he said, "I am human."
For a few years after coming to the
Mr. Chorn-Pond has probably told some version of his experiences hundreds, if not thousands, of times during his 20 years of human rights work as a kind of perpetual expiation. He has raised money for Amnesty International, helped found Children of War to aid young survivors and started an anti-gang program in
In 1996, Mr. Chorn-Pond returned to
"He's a big guy, looks like gorilla," Mr. Chorn-Pond said, recalling the reunion. "He cried like a baby. His wife told me he never cried even when his mother died." When Mr. Yoeun met the Children of War group, he told them how Arn saved his life - the first time he revealed that part of his past to anyone. Later the two played together. That was when Mr. Chorn-Pond got the idea for the Master Performers Program. "Our project gave him a life," he said.
In 1998, Mr. Chorn-Pond and Mr. Burt, along with the nongovernmental organization World Education, helped found Cambodian Living Arts, which includes the master mentoring. The following year he took another trip to
The woman was Chek Mach, one of the country's most famous opera singers. "I had heard her on the radio as a child," Mr. Chorn-Pond said. "I was looking for her for many months." She, too, became a master, earning $80 a month teaching before she died in 2002.
As Mr. Chorn-Pond was walking or bicycling miles to remote villages looking for musicians, Mr. Burt was searching for someone who could make his idea for a Cambodian-American opera come to life. He found his librettist in 2000 at a performance of one of her plays at the Asia Society in
Ms. Filloux began working on Mr. Burt's idea, but it took him two more years to find a composer. He met Him Sophy, who comes from a family of musicians and was visiting
For three years, Mr. Him has been working on the score for "Where Elephants Weep," combining Western rock, classical music and rap with
IN July, Mr. Burt, who lives part-time in Vermont, brought Mr. Him to New York, and set him up in his own West Village apartment to finish the score, while Mr. Burt continued to look for backers.
One afternoon this summer, Mr. Him and Ms. Filloux were working in her cozy
"I can sing, but my voice is not a singer's," Mr. Him said apologetically, tapping his chest. He was sitting at a wooden table in front of a laptop and two small Sony speakers, the cord stretching across the tiny kitchen like a tripwire.
On his keyboard, Mr. Him sounded a tinny pling: a computerized approximation of the chapey, a two-string lute. Like the traveling musicians who used to play as they improvised poetry and social commentary, Mr. Him began to sing the prologue in a high, warbling voice. His left hand fluttered up and down at his stomach, as if he were playing:
"You must listen to my story.
I start in the year 63 ...
Halfway around the world, a man called 'King' has a dream
And musicians called the Beatles make the ladies scream."
Mr. Him stopped singing and explained with a satisfied smile, "I make the chapey player imitate the 'ladies scream.' "
After the prologue, the two went over the libretto line by line. As Ms. Filloux read, Mr. Him (who learned four languages before English) marked in his copy which syllable of each word should be stressed so that the music would match.
At one point, Ms. Filloux asked: "Can we go back to 'ancestors'? I worry about putting the emphasis on '-cestors.' "
He played it again.
"Our language is easy," he said with a laugh. "You don't need any stresses."
The complexities of the cross-cultural collaboration were also in evidence at a workshop this month in which the full opera was sung for the first time. Robert McQueen, the director, Scot Stafford, the music director, and Steven Lutvak, the musical adviser, painstakingly combed through the score, analyzing the lyrics, the concepts and the music. They suggested further Americanizing Sam's part, adding rock 'n' roll syncopation and some cursing. The musical changes were all right, but Mr. Him wasn't sure about the Cambodian audience's reaction to the swearwords. They spent 90 minutes working on four lines.
Later, Kay George Roberts, the conductor of the newly created New England Orchestra in
"These two different traditions have come together in an organic way," Ms. Roberts said later. As for performing it, she added, "I'm definitely interested."
Mr. Burt was at the session, but Mr. Chorn-Pond was not. He is back in
And four months ago, Mr. Chorn-Pond found Sokha, the only other boy of the original five chosen by the Khmer Rouge to be a musician who is still alive. "I've been searching for him for a long time," Mr. Chorn-Pond said. "Then, out of nowhere, I went to this mountain. He still worked for the Khmer Rouge for 50 cents a day, breaking rocks." (The Khmer Rouge control some disputed areas near the Thai border.)
"This guy is still a jungle boy," Mr. Chorn-Pond said. He took Sokha, seriously ailing from tuberculosis, and his wife and three children to live and work in his house, which is on a half-acre plot along the
During the trip to
Yet after talking about his large extended family, Cambodian and American, noting that he has lived longer than any male in his family and that, for the first time, he owns his own home, he pronounced: "At this moment, I'm a very happy man. This land, this house, I don't want anything more."
But actually, he does want something more: to explore his own art, to discover "who I would have been if it hadn't happened." He laughed, thinking of
Then, somewhat unexpectedly, he said, "I would like to be an artist instead of a human rights activist" - a sign, perhaps, that he might be ready to take a break from his self-imposed atonement.
During a recent cellphone conversation from
There was a long pause, and it was hard to tell if it was the bad connection or a hesitation. "Not totally," he replied. "It is very easy to get caught in your own wounds." But with his human rights work, he said: "There is a possibility I could do that. It is not easy, but I am doing it now."
So did he still have the dream, the one about the children playing on one side and the Khmer Rouge on the other?
"Yes," he said, but "I have it less now." He was explaining more, but the cell reception was poor and his voice kept fading out. In the dream, he said, he is still "caught in the middle."
"I know I will be shot if I turn away" from the Khmer Rouge, he added, but at least now a newfound confidence replaces the familiar terror. "I have no fear and no reluctance." He drops the gun and runs to the boys, to a lost youth, to innocence, to redemption.