Shakespeare Meets Khmer at Phnom Penh Music Festival

The International Music Festival, which opens tonight in Phnom Penh, will this year be filled with the songs, poems and gentle melodies played on instruments that charmed royals and street vendors alike four centuries ago in Europe—but with a Cambodian-inspired twist.

To mark the 400th anniversary of English playwright William Shakespeare’s death in 1616, the 13th annual festival will feature the songs and music of his time, a golden era for the arts in England, festival director Anton Isselhardt said.

Poet Choun Sopheap rehearses the reading of a Shakespeare sonnet in Khmer, at Phnom Penh’s Meta House on Wednesday. Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily
Poet Choun Sopheap rehearses the reading of a Shakespeare sonnet in Khmer, at Phnom Penh’s Meta House on Wednesday. Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily

“What is interesting about the social and cultural aspects of Shakespeare’s times is that he wrote and staged plays not only for the queen and nobility, but for people from the street as well,” which may explain why there were songs and music in his plays, he said.

However, highlighting such music at the festival precipitated a difficulty: No Cambodian plays instruments of that era, such as the lute, viola da gamba or spinet, Mr. Isselhardt said.

“What is always an important issue is the opportunity to in-volve Cambodian musicians in the festival,” Mr. Isselhardt said. “For Renaissance music, it was not possible.”

One solution? Conducting a concert that would include a recitation of Shakespeare’s famed sonnets in both English and Khmer. This raised a new issue altogether: While the sonnets had been translated into many languages, they had never been expressed in Khmer.

“I thought: Let’s translate three sonnets of Shakespeare into Khmer,” Mr. Isselhardt said.

He turned to Samnang Sam, an official Khmer-language translator for the courts in Berlin who holds a doctorate in Southeast Asian history.

Mr. Sam’s translated texts were passed to Phnom Penh poet Choun Sopheap, an event manager at Meta House who writes in both Khmer and English, and is familiar with Shakespeare’s work. The texts he received were perfectly translated, but needed a poetic slant, he said, so he slightly reworked them to include rhyme. He also listened to the way they are performed in English to better capture their essence when he recites them on Sunday night at Meta House.

“I love drama works,” he said. “I watch a lot of drama in English.”

With a theme of “If music and sweet poetry agree,” the concert will also feature three English-language readers, including British diplomat George Edgar, the E.U. ambassador to Cambodia, as well as performances on lute and, for the first time in the festival’s history, on guitar.

This year’s five concerts will be held at InterContinental Phnom Penh, the National Museum’s south exhibition room and Meta House. The festival ends Monday night with a concert by classical guitarists Chuah Yeong Chin and Pongpat Pongpradit.

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