November 23, 2023
PHNOM PENH – Phnom Penh is set to be captivated as it plays host to an international production of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly – which also features Cambodian tenor Khuon Sethisak – at the Koh Pich Theatre on December 10.
The highly anticipated performance, known for its grandeur and international collaboration, reflects a growing openness among Cambodians for operatic performances.
Since its premiere in 1904 , the narrative has undergone several revisions, each solidifying the status of Madama Butterfly – the sixth most performed opera in the world – as a masterpiece.
Set in Japan in 1904, the opera tells the tragic tale of Cio-Cio-San – named after the Japanese word for “butterfly” – a geisha who faces betrayal and sorrow.
Despite poor initial reviews, the opera now stands as evidence of musical genius and undeniable storytelling prowess.
The upcoming event has garnered support from notable figures, including Her Royal Highness Norodom Princess Rattana Devi, who wants people to engage with a wide spectrum of artistic expressions.
This signifies broader cultural interest and heralds a moment of international collaboration and appreciation within the Kingdom.
“In Cambodia, we see a rising interest in art within this generation. I want this and future generations to encounter various forms of art and music,” Princess Rattana says.
The upcoming event marks the nation’s third hosting of an opera of such a grand scale, showcasing
a growing enthusiasm for such performances.
Princess Rattana fondly recalls the first two international-scale operas in 2018 and 2019, organised in close collaboration with Princess Norodom Buppha Devi.
“I recall them vividly, and they evoke very fond memories because during those two performances, I was alongside Princess Buppha Devi, who was such an outstanding artist.
“She consistently expressed her desire for the Cambodia Opera Project to continue orchestrating such events.
On stage, passionate singers and artists transfer their enthusiasm to audiences, creating a profound connection” says Princess Rattana.
This production, guided by the artistic direction of Vincenzo Grisostomi Travaglini and Prince Sisowath Ravivaddhana Monipong, showcases over 70 performers, encompassing a symphony orchestra and choir.
In the cast, notable talent include Japanese and Italian stars Yasuko Fuji, Ai Iwasaki and Enrico Terrone Guerra, alongside celebrated Cambodian opera singer Sethisak.
Sethisak says Cambodians had been unfamiliar with opera – when he started singing it in 1996, the public initially responded with laughter.
“Opera involves emotional expression, involving not only singing and acting, but also language.
“When performing Italian opera, singers must convey emotions in Italian, and for French opera, they need to express themselves in French,” he explains.
Sethisak asserts that opera holds significance as a performance art form for humanity, and Cambodia boasts an impressive arts scene with contributors from around the globe.
He draws comparisons between opera and Cambodian theatrical art forms like Lakhon Bassac and Lakhon Yike.
Gabriele Faja, production director – and CEO of one of the event’s sponsors, Soundskool Music Cambodia – says the forthcoming performance signals a significant moment for Cambodia.
He says embracing international arts, aesthetics, beauty and classical music reflects a broader appreciation for the humanities, crucial for a society valuing intellectual maturity and creative intelligence.
He also highlights the event’s importance as a stride in Cambodia’s cultural and artistic development. Involving more than 100 people both on and off-stage, it is set to become the country’s most extensive classical production, spotlighting premier talents in opera.
“This marks the first staging of Madama Butterfly with a full ensemble of over 70 performers on stage and an additional 30 or 40 technicians backstage.
“Undoubtedly, it stands as the most extensive classical production in Cambodia thus far,” Faja remarks.
He asserts that the artists engaged in the production, encompassing the cast, singers and production team, represent the highest calibre and quality.
The orchestra and choir primarily consist of international professionals in their respective fields.
This year’s event has the support of 22 sponsoring organisations, marking the largest number for a classical concert thus far in the nation.
A royal occasion
Faja adds that the production team benefits from the involvement of Prince Sisowath Ravivaddhana Monipong, and they are honoured by the presence of Princess Norodom Rattana Devi, both esteemed members of the royal family.
The producers anticipate the attendance of around 30 royal family members, approximately 20 government officials, and approximately 300 VIPs on the night of the event in addition to more than 1,000 members of the public.
“Total anticipated ticket sales are approximately 1,500, and we’ve already sold around 1,000.
“Primary sponsors include ABC, Soundskool, Cellcard and the Italian Embassy in Bangkok,” says Faja.
Hosting a grand event of this scale involves substantial logistical challenges, including coordinating travel, accommodation and synchronisation for the sizeable international cast and crew, he adds.
“For two weeks leading up to the event, the team must handle essential logistics such as accommodation, meals and coordination.
“The Koh Pich Theatre, Cambodia’s largest theatre, requires comprehensive arrangement and recalibration to suit the opera setting,” Faja tells The Post.
The dedication and passion of the international artists, motivated by a shared love for Cambodia and the event’s significance, are noteworthy.
Princess Rattana’s pride in this occasion mirrors a broader cultural shift.
The incorporation of local musicians, singers and artists in the production underscores their inherent collaborative spirit, blending international talent with Cambodian creativity.
The presentation of Madama Butterfly in Phnom Penh goes beyond a mere performance – it reflects the broader horizons of the Cambodian people in arts and music.
“I take great pride in the fact that this is happening in Cambodia.
“It involves the collaboration of everyone – costume designers, Cambodian musicians, local singers and artisans contributing to the production. I am genuinely proud of it,” she says.