Madama Butterfly Soars in Cambodia

From royals to first-timers, witness the magic unfold at Koh Pich Theatre as Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece graces Cambodia.

The theater held its breath as Madama Butterfly gracefully stepped onto the stage in tiny, deliberate steps. Clad in a voluminous kimono, Yasko Fujii embodied the youth and innocence of Cio-Cio-san. With one glance at the audience, she transformed into Madama Butterfly, filling the space with a clear, melodious aria that enchanted the crowd with her heavenly voice.

Opera aficionados and novices alike gathered at Cambodia’s Koh Pich Theatre, drawn by the allure of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. With a diverse turnout of over 1800 attendees, ranging from royalty to artsy newcomers, the anticipation was palpable for the enchanting narrative to unfold. Dressed in their finest attire, VIPs indulged in beverages and treats at the ABC lounge, creating an elegant prelude to the grand spectacle awaiting behind the theater doors.

Once settled, Italian Ambassador to Thailand Paolo Dionsisi remarked, “Cultural exchange goes beyond words, bringing us together and deepening our bonds.” Plans for the 120th celebration hinted at even more enchantment in the coming year.

A Khmer Nod

Before the performance, His Highness Ravivaddhana Monipong Sisowath, the assistant opera director, paid homage to the late Princess Buppha Devi. Reflecting on her dream to introduce opera to Cambodia, he shared the princess’s encouraging words: “We Cambodians and Italians share many commonalities, especially our deep connection to culture.” The performance beautifully honored her by incorporating scenes with the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.

His Highness detailed the historical connection between Puccini and Paris, stating, “At that time, Puccini was very often in Paris and was a close friend to all these big figures in the music scene.” The show embraced Cambodian elements, substituting Prince Yamadori with a Cambodian lord, portrayed by the Cambodian Tenor Sethisak Khuon.

Behind the scenes, production director Gabriele Faja led a star-studded team, including stage director Vincenzo Grisostomi Travaglini, conductor Marco Titotto, vocal coach and stage manager Paolo Gonnelli. The Madama Butterfly production showcased a cast of Italian, Japanese, and Khmer opera stars, including Yasko Fujii, Ai Iwasaki, Enrico Guerra, Khuon Sethisak, and many others.

Opera in Cambodia

The opera celebrated the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Cambodia, bringing a fresh and less-explored art form to Cambodian theatergoers. Despite its newness, it promises a hopeful embrace of new cultural horizons within Cambodia’s vibrant artistic scene.

Deka Nine, a Khmer actress with experience in theater, shared her observations at attending opera for the first time, saying, “It was so cool to have my first experience with a classical piece like Madama Butterfly and see our Khmer opera singer on stage in traditional clothes as well as Apsara dancers! I’m so happy and hopeful for the arts development in Cambodia!”

Although Madama Butterfly is a classic, its storyline is a bit outdated. Debuting in 1904, the opera unfolds the story of John Pinkerton, a white American Naval officer stationed in Nagasaki, and Cio-Cio, affectionately known as Butterfly. Once part of a noble family, Butterfly faced adversity and now finds herself as a Japanese geisha. The plot revolves around an opportunist marrying Cio-Cio as a temporary placeholder until he secures marriage to an American wife. In the pursuit of a better life with her beloved, Cio-Cio makes hard sacrifices, relinquishing her religions, traditions, and family bonds. After three years of waiting, she discovers betrayal and despair.

While the music and singing are beautiful, they also bring attention to uncomfortable lyrics and historical themes, emphasizing the need for more diverse voices to contribute to and improve the arts inspired by opera.

As applause filled the Koh Pich Theatre, it not only marked the end of a show but also the beginning of a new operatic experience for Cambodia. Let the echoes of Madama Butterfly inspire beyond its beginnings, and usher more voices into the medium, making music a truly universal language.

By Sotheavy Nou

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