OPERA REVIEW Balinese paradise

Ziporyn’s cross-cultural opera dazzles with its juxtapositions

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“A House in Bali” was composed by MIT professor Evan Ziporyn and directed by MIT professor Jay R. Scheib.
Christine Southworth

A House in Bali

Bang on a Can All-Stars and Gamelan Salukat

Music by Evan Ziporyn

Directed by Jay Scheib

Cutler Majestic Theater

October 8–9

A night at the opera transfiguring into a trip to the tropical paradise of Bali sounds like an excellent selling point to all the weather-ridden Bostonians. Yet, Evan Ziporyn’s recent opera “A House in Bali” has only now been staged in our beloved city after more than a year since its American premiere, which took place in San Francisco last fall.

Leaving aside the implications of this long delay, which suggests Boston’s more conservative musical preferences, the Boston premiere of “A House in Bali” was a momentous occasion for the MIT community, as two of our own faculty, composer Evan Ziporyn and director Jay Scheib had the opportunity to introduce their most recent large scale work to the local audience.

A bold fusion experiment, not only musically, but also in terms of staging and visual presentation, the opera dazzles with its innovative juxtaposition and intertwining of western post-modern classical performance and traditional Balinese showmanship. The opera features the simultaneous presence on stage of a western chamber music group, an entire Balinese gamelan, western opera singers, traditional Balinese singers and dancers, live acting, live video feeds and recorded footage, plus an intricate often-changing stage décor. All these elements synergize and captivate the audience in an experience that is both overwhelming and profoundly inspiring. The Boston performances featured the New York-based Bang on a Can All-Stars ensemble as the western musical group, joined by the amazing Gamelan Salukat from Bali, led by Deva Ketut Alit.

The opera is based on an autobiography by Colin McPhee, a Canadian composer who became fascinated by Balinese gamelan music after hearing a recording. McPhee traveled to Bali in the early 1930s to document the strange music and immerse himself in the Balinese culture. He befriended two other western artists present in Bali — famous American anthropologist Margaret Meade and German painter Walter Spies. The westerners’ adventures on the island revolve around McPhee’s abode – a house built without the explicit approval of the locals. While initially very amiable, the relationships between the locals and westerners became eventually strained by the fundamentally different cultures and traditions.

Especially telling is McPhee’s interaction with a young boy, Sampih, who in a serendipitous chain of events ended up saving McPhee from drowning. Emotionally indebted, the composer took Sampih as his protégée and offered him the opportunity for a broad artistic development. However, the cultural gap could not be bridged, despite the intense fascination between the two cultures. In the end, the east-west relationship ends tragically, with McPhee forced to leave Bali never to return, and Sampih dying at the hands of his own people.

In many ways, “A House in Bali” represents Ziporyn’s crowning achievement in mixed media composition. In fact, the opera highlights not only his decades long interest in Balinese music and performance, but also the autobiographical overtones of the story. Just like McPhee, Ziporyn took an early, obsessive interest with Balinese culture after hearing a gamelan recording. Even more intriguingly, during his many stays in Bali, Ziporyn had the opportunity of studying with the same local artist and teacher as McPhee, only 50 years later. Ziporyn’s opera thus reflects all these first hand accounts and interactions with the Balinese culture through its genuine feel. Although original, the gamelan music and dancing are highly authentic and contribute decisively to the exotic charm of the production.

Musically, “A House in Bali” is a refreshing experiment of new sonorities. At first, Ziporyn introduces each ensemble separately, showcasing its own expressive possibilities. Featuring electric guitar, bass and drums in addition to amplified violin, cello and grand piano, the post-modern chamber ensemble is reminiscent of an old-time jazz band, but without the intensity or improvisational interludes of actual jazz. The music for the western group is often melancholic, meandering, with jagged rhythms and poignant dissonances. The amplified string instruments afford a number of additional sound effects hard to produce otherwise, that provide vivid depictions of negative emotions such as anger, fear and desperation. Although carefully metered and conducted, most of the western music sounds disjoined and unsettled, closely paralleling the psychological states of McPhee and the other westerners.

In contrast, the gamelan music sounds exuberant and amazingly cohesive. Although the gamelan players perform without any written score, and with barely any conducting, their sounds coalesce almost instantly into the pulsating, repetitive yet subtly changing characteristic wall of music that has fascinated the westerners for so long. The first gamelan piece in the opera is particularly uplifting, showcasing the remarkable cross-meshing of rhythmic motifs across many different players.

Later arias in the opera feature both groups together. The music develops a hopeful character and combines the rhythmic precision of the gamelan with the more prominent soloistic possibilities of the western instruments. The results are striking, full of unexpected sonorities and highly enjoyable.

The opera also contrasts two styles of singing — the western operatic style and the traditional Balinese singing. Tenors Peter Tantsits, Timur Bekbosunov and soprano Anne Harley gave very convincing interpretations of the parts of McPhee, Spies and Mead respectively. One of the most exciting arias in the whole piece, “Fieldwork”, features all three describing their early impressions of Bali. This fast paced music simulates the gamelan interlocking mechanics, but with vocal lines, to a highly satisfying end. Balinese traditional singing is featured mainly in one aria, where the Kekawin singer (performed by Desak Made Suarti Laksmi) ominously forecasts the negative turn of events that precipitate the end of the opera. Laksmi’s remarkable performance highlighted the strikingly different singing technique used in traditional Balinese music.

One other remarkable element of Balinese performance was that the gamelan performers often doubled as actors; similarly, the female dancers doubled both as actors and singers. The artistic versatility of the Balinese performers is showcased in this production, adding yet another element of authenticity. Additionally, the dancing numbers were exquisite, highly expressive and full of charm.

“A House in Bali” featured not only engaging music, but also innovative visual displays, a trademark of Jay Scheib, who ably directed the production. Besides the traditional stage décor, two additional screens were setup for video feeds. The furthest back displayed recorded video feeds with scenery and life moments in Bali; some of the footage used was in fact part of the original footage shot by McPhee in 1930s. These feeds contributed tremendously towards a total sensorial immersion into the idyllic, Balinese paradise. A smaller screen, set up above the stage featured live footage, allowing the audience to experience a closer, more intimate viewpoint of the performers. The interplay between the live actors and the video feeds also allowed an unprecedented emotional depth perception. For example, by focusing on the facial expression of dancers, instead of the singers, the live feed would reflect a different artistic representation of the same emotion. Thus, the visual displays often continue and enhance the parallel exploration and contrasting of the two cultures, east and west, which is initiated first musically. The overall effect is quite overwhelming, but in a very satisfying way.