Mediated Meetings Between East and West

10/19/2010 12:00 PM |

A House in Bali

Music by Evan Ziporyn

Libretto by Paul Schick

Directed by Jay Schreib

In A House in Bali, Evan Ziporyn's frenetic new opera with drum solos and South Pacific dances, disparate cultures, the East and the West, can never really meet nor converge—just collide, as they do again and again here over 90 agitated minutes, producing jittery rhythms and amelodic melodies that borrow as much from twelve-tone as gamelan. (And were collaboratively performed recently, as part of BAM's Next Wave festival, by representatives from each: Bang on a Can All-Stars and Gamelan Salukat.)

Ziporyn takes as inspiration the memoirs of fellow composer Colin McPhee, who lived in Bali in the 1930s, studying the native musical traditions. He's the chief White Man, at turns delighted and lecherous, among his fascinating savages. In Jay Schieb's production at BAM, much of the opera's action takes place in a house that, throughout the evening, becomes blocked off from the audience's sight; instead, we watch it play out on a large monitor hanging above the stage, whose images are produced by one of the camcorders propped-up on stage (or, by the one live videographer). The effect is distancing, intentionally: as McPhee (the velvety tenor Peter Tantsits) is always an outsider among the Balinese, so are we among the performers.

And, often, when we see the Balinese on camera, the mechanism alters their behavior: we catch them not in their natural state but consciously "performing" for watching eyes, goofing off with big smiles. (Call it the "condescension of record.") Among those eyes are not just ours and McPhee's but those of Margaret Mead, here repeatedly plugging her book, and the painter Walter Spies. Together, they behave as though they're adventurers on the frontiers of humanity, discovering new, nontraditional forms: of art, of music, of sociological behavior. But by Bali's end, when Japanese and Dutch characters appear on stage wearing masks that crudely caricature their races, we realize that the Caucasoid Trio haven't preserved a dying culture or promoted its wonders throughout the world: despite their best intentions, they have merely transformed their alienation into exploitation—they've created a new ethnic stereotype, that of the "liberated primitive."

(photo credit: Christine Southworth)