Monday, October 11, 2010

Bali high

The gamelan ensemble of A House in Bali. Photos by Christine Southworth.
Local composer Evan Ziporyn is a man in love - with the gamelan, the percussive musical ensemble indigenous to Bali. And through much of his new opera, A House in Bali, he makes you fall in love with it, too. Indeed, whenever his opera hews closely to the silvery rhythms of pure gamelan (there's a large ensemble on stage pretty much throughout), it's magical, and seductively hypnotic.

But alas, whenever A House in Bali looks westward to the tale of Colin McPhee, a Canadian composer who in the thirties became drunk on gamelan in a Paul-Gauguin-esque way, the magic begins to evaporate. Part of the problem is that the opera's librettist, Paul Schick, doesn't have much new to say about this standard-issue West-meets-East encounter. And what might count as a new edge on the material - its sex-tourism undertow - he acknowledges, but simultaneously struggles to elide.

As is well known, Colin McPhee was gay, and moved in a circle of gay "ultra-modernist" composers that included Henry Cowell; it's likewise well known that in Bali he had many affairs with local men, and even teen-aged boys. But he was also married - to a disciple of Margaret Mead, who was married at the time too, but  (can we say this out loud now?) was also gay. So there was a whole lot going down in Bali, something tells me!  At any rate, after leaving the island, McPhee divorced his wife, and began to live his life as an openly gay man - even settling for a time in a brownstone with Leonard Bernstein and Benjamin Britten (whom he would turn on to gamelan - which would influence Death in Venice - and who of course was also famously obsessed with young boys).

Got all that?  Clearly McPhee's time in Bali was one of personal transformation - although his memoir, A House in Bali, deletes much of this personal information (including the wife, who's also missing from the opera). Yet oddly, Schick and Ziporyn make clear the gay subtext of the book - the central action revolves around McPhee's fixation with a beautiful dancing boy.  The trouble is that the creative team doesn't seem to know what to do with this material; the dramatic (and sexual) action wants to go one way, but Schick and Ziporyn want to impose an East-and-West-can-never-meet musical template onto it, and this stymies the personal story, and thus the opera's actual development.  It's like a coming-out story in which nobody ever really comes out.

Needless to say, there are social and political reasons to explain this obliqueness.  There's debate about whether McPhee was technically a "pedophile" or not, and whether Balinese attitudes toward sexuality and gender are "fluid" enough to give his behavior a kind of moral pass. Maybe so; I don't know.  But we're in America, not Bali, and there are actual teen-age boys onstage in A House in Bali (none of them exploited, btw), and so the opera has to treat its subtext as a political hot potato. And thus, to my mind, it can't really get beyond what amounts to bare-bones conceptual statement.

But director Jay Scheib seems to want to compensate for the script's thinness by burying it in a welter of performance-art trappings (at left). Indeed, everything but the virtual kitchen sink is in this show: there's a modernist set, and several video screens, along with onstage videographers, and two musical ensembles, and subtitles in two languages, and even Margaret Mead taking notes in a corner. It's a bit like watching every gimmick boho performance art ever used to avoid directly stating the sexual issue at hand crammed onto a single stage.  Meanwhile, as McPhee, Peter Tantsits (who sounds as good as he looks) generally just wanders around looking confused.  The able Anne Harley likewise struggles to make an impression as Mead, and I was barely aware of Timur Bekbosunov's turn as McPhee's sidekick, painter Walter Spies.

The Balinese performers do better.  As Sampih, the object of McPhee's affection, young Nyoman Triyana Usadhi was charismatically poised and troublingly alluring, and dancer/actresses Kadek Dewi Aryani and Desak Madé Suarti Laksmi both cut striking profiles.  Likewise the gamelan musicians played not just their instruments but also various "villager" roles with graceful good humor.

But I longed for them to play more. Ziporyn relies too much on one musical trick - the overlay of the gamelan's mysterious chime with his Western ensemble's modernist anxiety; at times the resulting mélange became an assaultive drone. But in a pure form, the gamelan is indeed addictive, and yes, dreamily sexualized.  And to be fair, there are some wonderful passages in Ziporyn's writing; the muted, indirect love-song between McPhee and Sampih is particularly haunting.  You feel at such moments that Ziporyn might have a real opera about Bali in him, if he's ever allowed to write it.

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