Old age isn’t for sissies or the timid and I think the same thing can be said about writing for the stage, especially if it’s the operatic one. It took Verdi years before he produced something that worked on the boards. Evan Ziporyn’s no stranger to the stage–he’s written and performed Shadowbang–and his new two-act 140 minute amplified opera A House in Bali has much to recommend it. The story is drawn from gay Canadian composer Colin McPhee’s (1901-1964) 1946 memoir, with ancillary material drawn from the words of the two other main Western characters–anthropologist Margaret Mead and painter Walter Spies. A piece about a composer seems an odd choice for anyone but another composer, though McPhee’s success at combining Balinese gamelan sonorities and rhythms into a western orchestral idiom impacted Ziporyn’s work bigtime, The problem is there was little real dramatic juice in the piece, which is a shame because Ziporyn’s music for New York’s 6-piece Bang On A Can All-Stars and Bali’s 16-member Gamelan Salukat is striking, even arresting.
Drama means “action” and even interior action has to be explicit — we can’t take it on faith. But Ziporyn and his librettist Paul Schick have created a script that mostly tells rather than shows. The words have an “intellectual ” rather than emotional rhythm, and sometimes no discernible rhythm at all. And what is anyone, much less French tenor Marc Molomot, who sings the part of McPhee, to make of lines like ” But here / I feel suddenly shut in, / and I can hardly wait / for the end of the concert. ” It’s not as bad as ” the only saviors are the ham sandwiches and the hot coffee ‘ in Peter Sellars’ libretto for Adams’ self-important dud Dr. Atomic, but that’s not saying much. The book for a purportedly avant garde show like this should be as solidly built and serviceable as any for the Broadway stage where we’re rarely in the dark about who does what and why. Jay Scheib’s direction didn’t clarify what was going on either, and any well-directed piece — no matter how complex it looks (say the party scene in La Boheme) should make its points simply and directly. But Scheib wasn’t content to leave well enough alone. Instead he did things that may have looked good on paper as “concepts” but simply didn’t work on the stage. Like having the gamelan players build McPhee’s house (the scenic designer was Sara Brown) as an angled well-lit room parked stage left which we could hardly see into, save through the lens of a videographer stationed inside. And there was never a sense of constriction when McPhee was supposed to be falling apart. How could there be on Zellerbach’s huge open non-proscenium stage which easily accomodated Ziporyn’s band in the center and Gamelan Salukat to its left.
But the biggest failure of the piece was portraying McPhee as just another alcoholic composer, which he was, and a repressed gay man which he most decidedly wasn’t. Yet Ziporyn would rather have it his way. ” I have no way of knowing,” he told interviewer Jonathan Leibovic, “whether he ( McPhee ) acted on these feelings ( for the young Balinese boy Sampih, played charmingly here by Nyoman Triyana Usadhi). I don’t ever suggest that he did and in fact I’ve always presumed that he didn’t in this case.” That contradicts what McPhee said in a letter to his psychiatrist . ” Many times there was a decision to be made between some important opportunity and a sexual relationship that was purely sensual. I never hesitated to choose the latter. This I did deliberately and would do again and again. The Balinese period was simply a long extension of this.” Which means that Ziporyn didn’t really do his homework regarding this important matter. But without this driving passion, or if you will, obsession, beautifully revealed in an ultra simple and very soft vocal line for Molomot, with transparent contributions from the All-Stars (the audience heaved a collective ” ah “), the piece had hardly any center, and hardly anywhere to go. It doesn’t have to be a male to male version of Butterfly but conflicts and/or misunderstandings between cultures have to be made in personal terms. But Ziporyn made his piece a tragic love story about two divergent cultures which got him off the hook of dealing directly with subject matter he’s obviously uncomfortable with.
But Ziporyn’s comfort level with the music is complete. And the sounds he devised for the All-Stars — hard driving or evocative, or the gamelan players with their gold hammers ever ready — clangorous, with complex layered rhythms and startling but perfectly logical shifts in timbre and dynamics, and a spectacular chorus for flutes — there even seemed to be some polytonal stretches in the score — held one’s attention when the words and stage action action didn’t. It was also strongly sung by the three Western principals and there was a startling passage, in falsetto for Molomot, who’s a counter tenor. Especially good was soprano Anne Harley ( Margaret Mead ) who had a highly ornamented passage — she does lots of Baroque music which makes similar demands — which she projected with refulgent warmth and charm. Tenor Timur Bekbosunov was also impressive and impressively tall as the confident, even arrogant Spies. All the other Balinese perfomers — Kadek Dewi Aryani, Desak Made Sarti Laksmi , I Nyoman Catra — made stong impressions, as did the choreography by Aryani and Catra. If only Ziporyn and company had built a house which was more than sum of its component parts.
[ed. note — corrected the spelling of Mr. Ziporyn’s last name.]