Encore, Angkor(1)

9 December 2002


SIEM REAP – It was an event that would probably have woken the dead.

More than 1,000 people tramping through the ruins of the Angkor temples in their tuxedos and ballgowns by moonlight and the flickering of lamp oil lights.

Men perspiring profusely in their suits, women tottering on their high heels, occasionally stepping on their long dresses, all making their way through the temples, along the stone pathways, across to the East Entrance.

A good 30-minute walk – but well worth the sweat. A fitting dramatic entry for an event of a lifetime, “An Evening at Angkor with Jose Carreras”.

A charity concert planned by Raffles International, with the full blessing of the Cambodian government – an event aimed at raising the awareness of the Cambodia as a tourist destination and as a country rich in culture away from the usual images of war, bloodbaths and conflicts.

On top of all that, to raise S$300,000 for four charities – the Cambodian Red Cross, Veterans International for Victims of Landmines, Wild Aid and the SOS Children’s Villages.

The logistics were overwhelming. An event of this scale had never been organised before in a country more used to war than opera – feeding more than 1,000 guests in the open air grounds facing the East Entrance of the temples and installing a sound and lighting system that would showcase the voice of Carreras and the temples of Angkor.

Even the chairs had to be brought in from Phnom Penh. Equipment had to be shipped and flown in from Singapore and Bangkok. Musical instruments of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra had to find their way to the temples, not to mention the 90 musicians from Singapore who would accompany Carreras.

Here are the other numbers – 150 dancers, 32,000 flowers, 20 life-size ice carvings, four elephants, 170 chefs, 1,000 bottles of wine and oh, not to mention the approximate 500 police who had to be deployed for security.

Attending were Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen and the country’s entire political community, which possibly outnumbered paying guests.

In total, 1,050 guests attended – paying up to US$1,500 a seat. The cheapest seats were US$500 a pop.

When it comes to charity concerts, organisers are always shy to talk about numbers – but it was clear the costs must have been staggering. Some of it was defrayed through sponsorships and contra deals – the main sponsors were Caltex and Mastercard while co-sponsors were Cathay Pacific, Bangkok Airways and Robert Mondavi Winery.

Jose Carreras’ fee was the event’s worst-kept secret. Although he had reportedly agreed to a hugely discounted fee, rumours were that each tune he sang was easily worth about S$20,000 – which led many in the travel business to jest that they were obviously in the wrong business.

Then there were the fees to the SSO which was led by Carreras’ nephew, Daniel Gimenez. The stage had to be built up from scratch and the sound and lighting, which many said stole the show and was put on by Singapore-based company, Showtec, reportedly cost upwards of S$50,000.

The biggest worry was the weather. When lightning lit up the sky in the early evening, the blood pressure of Raffles International’s area general manager for Cambodia, Gilbert Madhavan, the driving force behind the event, must have shot up.

And when raindrops started falling an hour after, he must have popped a blood vessel. As a contingency measure, raincoats had been placed at the bottom of every chair and those were whipped up and donned by guests whose spirits refused to be daunted by the rain.

Mutterings were heard from some that probably the spirits were not happy that the sacred temples of Angkor were being used for such an ostentatious event in a country which reportedly still has 500,000 landmines buried in its countryside and whose people are among the poorest in the region.

But Madhavan obviously had good spiritual advice. Prayers in the early evening when lightning lit up the sky followed by another round of prayers after the rain started falling – this time with a bottle of wine to appease the spirits – obviously worked because the rain miraculously stopped.

And then there were the insects and crickets to worry about. After all, no one wanted a cricket to fly into the mouth of Carreras just as he was delivering an aria.

So the entire area had to be fogged for about a week prior to the event.

The planning and preparations, which took more than a year, were well-rewarded. The event went off without a hitch. Transfers from respective hotels to the temple grounds went smoothly, the food quality was admirable, given the circumstances and the most hardened opera fans could not have fault the sound system. But most magical was the lighting which showed the temples in the backdrops to perfection.

Indeed, to me, it was the temples that stole the show and Carreras was the sideshow. It was as though the tenor, who did not say one word to the audience, not even a thank you when they sang “Happy Birthday” to him (his birthday was the day before), was there just to do his job – never mind the historic occasion he was part of.

Granted, he did four encores – but he could hardly not have done anything less considering the whole-hearted enthusiasm of an audience whose spirits were soaring high in what they knew was an experience of a lifetime.

Truly, a surreal event in a spiritual setting.

Encore Angkor, and Raffles for pulling it off.

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