On January 3, Siem Reap’s 2020 arts and lifestyle coverage kicked off the year on an optimistic note that, with the wisdom of hindsight, turned out to be somewhat ironic.
With a headline declaring – On again, off again: Opera at Angkor on again – an article documented the history of the allegedly forthcoming Cambodian performance of The Magic Flute at Angkor, a staging that took several years of planning and a bewildering slew of date changes.
In December 2019, a new new-date – November 2020 – was set, with an announcement stating that the gala opera performance, together with three public performances for national and international audiences, would take place at Angkor, aligning with the Asia Europe Meeting Summit to be hosted in Cambodia.
The idea of staging such an opera was the brainchild of journalist and classically-trained pianist Robert Turnbull, who first thought of staging a Cambodian performance of The Magic Flute shortly after he arrived in the Kingdom in 1997.
In 2013, he invited opera directors Stefano Vizioli and Aaron Carpenè to lead the project, and workshops began in 2014.
In February 2015 auditions took place in Phnom Penh, and it was announced that the opera would be staged at Angkor in December 2017.
In April 2017, an “intimate preliminary performance” was staged at Navatu Dreams Resort in Siem Reap, with news that the full performance at the temples would be held in December 2018.
In January 2018, Turnbull announced that tentative permission had been granted to hold a full performance of the opera at an Angkor temple in 2019.
Tragedy then intervened. On Christmas Day 2018, Robert Turnbull, 61, died at his home in southern France.
New plans had to be made and, after an audience with King Norodom Sihamoni on July 29, 2019, a new date was set for February 2020 and reconfirmed on September 23.
By October 2019, it became obvious that the Febuary 2020 date could not be met, and in late December 2019, musical director Aaron Carpenè stated: “I am pleased to announce the Gala premiere performance of Mozart at Angkor in November 2020, presided by His Majesty the King of Cambodia.”
That was pretty much the last anybody heard of the opera, presumably plunged into off-again mode with the arrival of the pandemic plunging Siem Reap and the rest of the world into unprecedented on-again, off-again modes.
As 2020 unfolded, tourism in Siem Reap slowly sank into the sunset, but locals tried to keep the art scene flourishing.
On January 31, Khmer Times reported that FCC Angkor’s gallery was hosting a new photo exhibition, titled ‘War and Peace’, by award-winning documentary maker Dr David Feingold.
On February 14, we reported that two of Britain’s finest BritCool artistes – painter Jo Peel and DJ Danny Rampling – were returning to Siem Reap to bring delight to the discerning. Peel launched an exhibition titled ‘Making Progress’ at the One Eleven Gallery and the legendary UK house music megastar DJ Danny ‘Happy’ Rampling, together with his techno decksmith wife Ilona, spun their tunes in a live appearance at The Village Café’s Beat Boutique.
On February 28, it was reported that, in preparedness for International Women’s Day on March 8, with its theme of gender parity, an all-women art exhibition at Siem Reap’s Treeline Urban Resort was already drawing interest.
The exhibition, titled ‘The Cities,’ featured three emerging female artists – Sao Sreymao, Eng Rithchandaneth aka Daneth and Prak Dalin – who explored the complexities of modern urban life and fast-changing cityscapes in their works.
On March 13, we reported that a documentary film, ‘Garuda’s Song: Musical Memories from Cambodia’, was showing at the 10th Annual Cambodia International Film Festival in Phnom Penh.
The documentary revisited the captivating 2019 Siem Reap performance of Garuda’s Song by American musicians Alex Biniaz-Harris and Ambrose Soehn, who had also written the musical composition. It conveyed the story of Cambodia’s compelling musical heritage by tying together traditional melodies and classics from Cambodia’s Golden Age of soul, jazz and rock ’n’ roll from 1959 to 1975.
On March 20, we reported that Siem Reap’s Khmer art theatre Bambu Stage, supported by Experience Cambodian Living Arts, was exciting audiences with ‘Forbidden Rhythms,’ a nightly ‘ritual’ featuring Medha, Cambodia’s first female drumming troupe.
And then it all came to a crashing halt. New government COVID-19 measures temporarily shut down activities, and Khmer Times’ Siem Reap arts and lifestyle coverage also shut down, re-emerging in mid-October with a compelling mission to see whether the Magic Flute opera would be on again in November.
However, several queries went unanswered, the website stopped updating, and November came and went with no opera.
Then came news that following the crowning of Siem Reap in late October as the Asean City of Culture for 2021-2022, two special performances would be held in Siem Reap in 2021, one being the staging of “Mozart at Angkor: Cambodia Magic Flute.”
To date no one has been able to confirm whether the opera is really on again for 2021.
Let’s hope so, and let’s hope 2021 proves a better vintage than 2020.