Penniless singer keeps Cambodia’s rich culture alive

Say Tola / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Un Sreylis (middle) is determined to devote her life to classical singing. KT/Srey Kumneth

career in the classical arts is almost never lucrative. It’s something you do out of passion, not to get rich. Most artists need help from others when they grow old or fall ill, because they simply don’t have sufficient income to make it on their own. Despite knowing this, the young performer Un Sreylis is determined to devote her life to classical singing.

“I’m striving to realize my dreams, even though I’m fully aware that artists often face difficulties when they get older. I’m constantly whispering encouragement to myself,” said Ms Sreylis, 25, a classical singer and performer of yike traditional Khmer opera.

Born in Svay Rieng province, Ms Sreylis has had to fend for herself since she was in Grade 10, when her parents moved away. A teacher agreed to let her live in his home, in return for keeping the house clean and washing his family’s clothes. She lived there and continued studying until she finished high school.

Leaving her hometown to pursue her studies in Phnom Penh, Ms Sreylis said she did not have enough money to enrol in school. She applied for scholarships and was admitted to three universities.

Though her initial dream was to become a professional office worker of some kind, Ms Sreylis accepted an offer from the Royal University of Fine Arts because it was the only place she could afford, requiring only enough money to pay for some documents.

“I had dreamed of working in an office, but unfortunately I did not have enough money to pay for [the schools that would have made that possible]. So I decided to study mohoary singing at RUFA because I only had to pay a little bit of money for some documents,” Ms Sreylis said.

While studying, Ms Sreylis worked nights as a waitress at restaurant for a few months. “When I worked at the restaurant I got $80 to $100 dollars a month. I was very happy, especially after the first month, to have money to put toward my studies,” she said.

During this period an instructor noticed that she could sing, and auditioned Ms Sreylis, who decided to specialize in singing. In the late 2013, she met an actor who encouraged her to join his performances as a singer. Later on she began performing acting roles in yike operas.

She auditioned twice for a singing contest show on CTN but failed both times because entrants were required to perform both classical and pop songs, but Ms Sreylis said she doesn’t have the skills for the latter.

Since 2014 she has travelled to Japan, China, Thailand and Australia to demonstrate Cambodian performing arts for audiences there.

Ms Sreylis’ dream is to release a CD of her own musical compositions. “I have written them for people to enjoy whenever they want to listen.”

She may not ever get rich from the classical arts, she said, but that doesn’t worry her; growing up she never had 100,000 riel in her hand at one time.

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