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Mozart's 'Magic Flute,' to a Cambodian Tune

The Khmer Arts Ensemble visited the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, in Maryland, in October to perform Sophiline Cheam Shapiro's "Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute," an interpretation of Mozart's famous opera.

When the curtain opened, the celestial beings of Cambodia resplendent in crowns, costumes and jewels told the story, accompanied by a traditional Cambodian Pin Peat ensemble of instrumentalists and three vocalists.

The opera tells the story of a kidnapped princess who must be rescued by a prince with a magic flute, and closely mirrors Mozart's stories, though with Cambodian characteristics. Mozart's serpent is Shapiro's garuda, for example.

Shapiro, the show's artistic director, is a choreographer, dancer, vocalist and educator. She has infused the classical form with new ideas and energy. Shapiro was one of the first students at the Cambodian National School of Fine Arts after it reopened following Cambodia's wars. After graduating, she joined the faculty of the school and toured internationally with the Classical Dance Company of Cambodia. In the early 1990s she emigrated to southern California.

"Pamina Devi was created at the request of theatre director Peter Sellars for New Crowned Hope, a festival in Vienna held in 2006 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth," Shapiro told VOA Khmer. "Peter asked me to explore the ideas and themes, the philosophies and concerns that Mozart addressed in the last works he composed prior to his death, at the age of 35, in 1791."

The performance was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and supported by the Khmer Arts Academy, Amrita Performing Arts and the Lisa Booth Management Firm.

Executive Producer of the Khmer Arts Academy John Shapiro, Sophiline's husband, has toured with the group in five US states.

"One of the interesting thing of the Magic Flute is that opera is also a court tradition, a European court tradition," John Shapiro said. "And yet the Magic Flute was an opera created for common theatre, for common people."

Cambodian classical dance is no longer a court form, he said, but it is still primarily patronized by the government.

"She worked outside of that system and so she's taking what had been a court form and making a work of art for everyday people and in that sense there is a great parallel between the 'Magic Flute' and 'Pamina Devi.'"