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Review: Evan Ziporyn’s A House in Bali

baliOld 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.]

Comments

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: October 2, 2009, 8:00 pm

I haven’t seen this work, so I can’t comment on it or this production. I will say, though, that Shakespeare’s histories are not cherished for their historical accuracy. If leaving McPhee’s sexual activity ambiguous is the biggest failure of “A House in Bali,” then it sounds like it must have been a resounding success.

Comment from todd reynolds
Time: October 3, 2009, 12:40 am

With respect, I guide you to the correct spelling of the composer’s name: Ziporyn. – as evidenced at his website, http://ziporyn.com

Comment from Vivian Darkbloom
Time: October 3, 2009, 1:22 am

C’mon guys – this reviewer obviously has a great and subtle sense of humor, claiming the composer didn’t ‘do his homework’ when the reviewer himself can’t be bothered to spell said composer’s name correctly!!! It’s too bad there’s not some kind of ready resource available that would have allowed Mr. McDonagh to check the name…

As for whether or not McPhee had sex with a pre-adolescent boy, I don’t really see how a letter from McPhee acknowledging that he indeed had sex while in Bali (which is clearly what the letter says – it doesn’t say anything about Sampih one way or the other) ‘proves’ anything about this ‘important matter’ (because of course it’s vitally important for us to know this in any case), except that the reviewer seems to equate homosexuality with pederasty: according to his logic, McPhee’s failure to bugger the child would make him a ‘repressed gay man.’

Very enlightened writing….GB Shaw reincarnated!

Comment from Michael McDonagh
Time: October 3, 2009, 4:34 pm

All thanks for all comments.

Yes, Ziporyn, not Zipporyn. Sorry..

Knew the fur would fly on this.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: October 3, 2009, 5:31 pm

Thanks, Michael. For my part, my fur feels pretty smooth. I’m perfectly willing to believe that “Bali” is a terrible piece, just as I’m willing to believe that it’s a wonderful piece – I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. All I know is nobody loves Madame Butterfly because of Puccini’s research into the subject matter.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: October 3, 2009, 7:11 pm

I think the point is more that the composer is a bit disingenous in saying he has no way of knowing when one must assume he had every way of knowing.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: October 3, 2009, 7:44 pm

…and yes, spellcheckers, the word should be “disingenuous.”

Comment from Michael McDonagh
Time: October 4, 2009, 4:41 am

Hello Jerry

Thanks for including my last graph.

I should have noted that Ziporyn also conducted.

Michael

Comment from BipperBali
Time: October 6, 2009, 10:12 am

I was there and I can’t wholly support this review. To me, the portrait of the man was a glimpse into this stolen moment in history in this forgotten island. The music was meant to capture that idyllic existence. As far as McPhee’s relationship to the boy? Who cares. I felt his homosexuality was a marginal element to the whole drama. It’s about as newsworthy as people visiting Indonesia today to have sex with young boys. Again, who cares?
The drama hung its hat on two things: McPhee’s motivation for being there, and how it changed him. His legacy is capturing the music of that time (which was disappearing) and preserving it through his work. It made it to us through him. It continues to reach us through works like “A House in Bali” and that was the point! His experience with Sampih was a part of his experience there. However it was not THE experience while he was there.

Comment from Vivian Darkbloom
Time: October 6, 2009, 5:17 pm

Re Stanley Moon, how would the composer have ANY way of knowing what happened behind closed doors in a village in Bali in 1935? No one disputes that McPhee (and Walter Spies, and numerous others) HAD SEX with Balinese men in the 1930s, and very few dispute that they probably had sex with people under the age of 18. What the composer CLEARLY said – for anyone who ‘did their homework’ – was that he had no way of knowing whether McPhee had sex WITH SAMPIH, who of course was 9 years old at the time.

I’m not sure who’s more idiotic here, the original reviewer (though that’s a high standard to beat) or Stanley Moon.

That being said, I agree with BipperBali – anyone paying attention (or without some kind of axe to grind) would realize that this was not what the piece was about. It’s only worthy of discussion because McDonagh’s original comments are so distorted and foolish.

Comment from Michael McDonagh
Time: October 7, 2009, 4:58 am

Sex is always the heart of the matter

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: October 7, 2009, 10:55 am

Vivian, calling us all idiots is certainly not the best way to make a convincing argument, or the best way to do anything. And your tone seems unduly sniping and personal. I understand you’re from Cambridge, so that might explain something. What a few of us are saying is that McPhee made pretty strong statements that suggest he acted out on his impulses liberally. He never explicitly stated that the boy was included in this, but he surely hinted at it. So, while the statement that “there is no way of knowing” can be parsed as factually correct, it still suggests an unwillingness to know. The reviewer didn’t condemn the opera. He found it musically very resourceful, but felt that it lacked psychological depth. That’s a point with which I can’t agree or disagree, having not seen the work, but it is a valid criteria in the judgement of an opera.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: October 7, 2009, 10:58 am

or a valid criterion!

Comment from Vivian Darkbloom
Time: October 7, 2009, 2:04 pm

I do apologize to the readership for flaming, that was intemperate, and deserving of chastisement, however wrongheaded I believe Mr. McDonagh to be. I would apologize with a personal e-mail to Mr. Moon, but I don’t believe in transgressing people’s privacy in that way. Apparently he disagrees, having creepily made me feel as if I’m being stalked. Thanks much for that, Stanley, you’re a model of web etiquette for us all.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: October 7, 2009, 2:32 pm

And you are a fountain of snark. Thanks for another teaching moment.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: October 7, 2009, 2:44 pm

…oh, and one other thing. There is a band from Cambridge called Vivian Darkbloom. I don’t believe their identity is a secret and since Evan Ziporyn is associated with Cambridge I figured you might be friends. That is, unless you are actually Vladimir Nabokov, in which case I apologize for the error.

Comment from Tempo Dulu
Time: October 14, 2009, 3:52 am

But is it fun?