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SJOG Travelers

Sometimes the edgy, unusual opera isn’t very far away: A House in Bali mixes East and West and much more.
By Mort Levine

On a recent Saturday night, the choice was between San Francisco’s Il Trovatore and a strange opera at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall which took you back to the 1930s in Bali. It didn’t even require a coin-toss. We’ve seen more than our share of Trovatores but the intriguing new work of composer Evan Ziporyn, A House in Bali, won out.

In a recent interview with the San Jose Mercury, SFO’s General Director, David Gockley, defended the rather pedestrian lineup of productions this season (the first full schedule which is his responsibility) on a couple of grounds. One was the financial problems facing the company which saw a cut in budget from $69 million to $63 million, a $25 million hit to the SFO endowment, and word from big donors that they were cutting back this year. His second reason was that he’s seen research suggesting new and younger audiences preferred the old tried and true repertory rather than cutting edge offerings in the Pamela Rosenberg vein.

That made it even more likely that the Balinese excursion was going to be our choice. And while it turned out to be a fascinating concept with an impressive musical score conducted by the composer, its staging left much to be desired. The simple story-line follows a trio of Americans sharing a house in the exotic Indonesian island. The characters are based on a real menage a trois which linked famed anthropologist Margaret Mead (sung by vigorous soprano Anne Harley), Canadian composer Colin McPhee (performed by Marc Molomot, a counter-tenor with a wide range of voices), and painter Walter Spies (tenor Timur Bekbosunov was somewhat tentative in this ambiguous role). In the opera Spies is arrested and shipped out by the Dutch authorities. In real life he was rounded up in a crackdown on homosexuality and ultimately lost his life when a ship of deportees was sunk.

As in Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, there is a cloying eroticism and implied homosexual attraction, but this aspect is played down in the opera. There is, however, a full measure of strange and exotic demons from the mythology of the Balinese which is rendered in wild dances to gamelan accompaniment.

The music is woven by a seven member ensemble called the Bang on the Can Allstars which began in San Francisco and has made a strong base in New York. This contemporary Western sound is intertwined with the gamelan which is performed by a 18-member Gamelan Salukat troupe of percussion and horn players who also are dancers. They all come from one village in Bali.

The main character without a singing role is Sampih, a 13-year-old, Nyoman Usadhi, who becomes a houseboy for the Americans and turns into an astonishing dancer.

There were troupes of additional dancers, ornate costuming, masked characters and a constant choreographic movement throughout the two acts. The cross cultural convergence drew introspective arias from the two male opera singers, but Margaret Mead simply kept discovering revelations in behavior that she recorded in her notebooks with little attempt to develop an understandable character.

The large stage was dominated by a modular house going up and then being torn down. Since much of the action took place behind walls, the director, Jay Scheib, chose to have a couple of video cameramen shoot instantly and display instantly on a large screen above the house to help the audience follow the tangled story. That couldn’t be possible in the 30s but nobody seemed concerned.

Was the entire effort worthwhile? The critical reception was definitely mixed, but there is hope for another run possibly at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago next summer. Maestro Ziporyn might want to do some revising during the interim.

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