Robert Turnbull (1957-2018)

// Aaron Carpene

Robert George Turnbull died on Christmas Day from lymphoma at his home in Lagrasse, near Carcassonne, in southern France. He was 61.

Robert was born in Royal Leamington Spa in the United Kingdom on 10 August 1957. His final hours were tended by his sister Penny, Michael Tomczak and a host of devoted neighbours and admirers.

In 1997, Robert moved to Cambodia and threw himself into the task of helping to rebuild the local performing arts scene, which had been decimated by the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s.

Many musicians and artists benefited from his labour of love.

The tenor Sethisak Khuon, Cambodia’s first internationally trained opera singer, remembers Robert helping him with his career and contributing to his recording projects. He was an excellent accompanist, he recalls, and the only pianist at the time who understood how important breathing was for singers.

Another musician, Bonsamnang Ikeda, Cambodia’s foremost clarinettist, received a financial contribution from Robert to study in Birmingham in 1998-99. Bonsamnang is a working musician and teacher in Phnom Penh today.

Not long after his arrival, Robert began to entertain the idea of mounting a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. His vision was to introduce Western opera for the first time to Cambodia and feature local musicians and singers in partnership with an international cast and crew. In 2013 he invited the Italian opera stage director Stefano Vizioli and myself to lead the project. Since 2014, intensive workshops and performances have taken place in Cambodia involving national and international singers and musicians, together with the Amrita Performing Arts Dance ensemble.

In March 2018 a promotional version of The Magic Flute was performed at the Chaktomuk Conference Hall in Phnom Penh, an event that will long be remembered by those who attended. The event was attended by the Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, Dr. Sackona Phoeurng, who gave an introductory speech expressing her wish to see The Magic Flute performed at Angkor Wat, something that Robert had envisioned.

Immediately after the March event, which he considered the pinnacle of his life’s achievements, Robert fell seriously ill. He returned to the UK to seek treatment.

One of his closest friends, Rupert Christiansen, author and opera critic, posted the following tribute on his Facebook page on 27 December 2018:

Robert and I met in the queue for the Ring cycle at Covent Garden 40 years ago: Wagner would remain a leitmotif of our conversation ever after, but through thick and thin, across three continents, we shared so much else as well. Our relationship wasn’t always easy and we were often geographically separated, but he was my Best Man and the nearest I have had to a brother. He drove me mad, I loved him deeply, and his death leaves a great void in my life.

Ceaselessly hungry for experience, he was an insatiable traveller, always open to adventure, gobbling up possibilities with impulsive gusto. Charming, gregarious, sensitive and generous — as well as stubborn, impatient and chaotic — he made friends wherever he went and styled himself, with good reason, a citizen of the world.

Music, especially the piano (which he played to professional standard) and opera, was his grand passion. Aside from his intermittently successful but somewhat erratic career as a journalist — specialising in opera and Asian culture and including some trenchant long-form pieces for Opera Now, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Sunday Telegraph and South China Morning Post among others — he could boast two more durable achievements.

One was his work in Cambodia, where in collaboration with Fred Frumberg, he spent a decade helping to restore the country’s classical arts after the horrors of the Pol Pot regime, as well as producing an epoch-making performance of The Magic Flute just before he fell sick in March; the other is the annual summer festival for young pianists he established in Lagrasse. Sustained financially by a foundation he has set up in his will, this wonderful event will be continued in his memory, guided by his unquenchable and mercurial spirit.

Vale Robert, you will be remembered with much affection and esteem.

Aaron Carpene is the conductor and artistic director of the Cambodian Magic Flute

December 6, 2018
January 23, 2019