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Opera Meets Gamelan in Ubud, Bali

'Tragic love story' of Bali and the West in Premiere of 'A House in Bali' June 26 & 27, 2009.

(6/15/2009) Contributed by Rucina Ballinger and originally published in The Jakarta Post

The Ubud Palace, where the cultural exchange between Balinese and Western artists first began in the 1930s, has turned host for a new opera that deals with that very subject - the world premiere of Evan Ziporyn's cross-cultural opera - A House in Bali.

This new work, which combines Western music with the gamelan, opera singers and arja (Balinese traditional opera) artists features some of the finest singers and musicians from Bali and around the world. The composition brings together Balinese and Western cultures in a way perhaps never imagined by the characters it portrays: composer Colin McPhee, artist Walter Spies and kebyar dancer I Sampih.

Two free performances will take place at 8 p.m. on June 26 and 27, 2009, in the very location where Walter Spies first stayed in Bali, the Puri Saraswati in central Ubud. There, surrounded by lotuses on the enchanting Cokorda Ngurah Suyadnya (Cok Wah) stage, the story told in McPhee's famous memoir A House in Bali will be presented.

The international cast includes three renowned opera singers: tenor Marc Molomot as McPhee, Kazakh native Timur Bekbosunov as Walter Spies and Anne Harley as famed anthropologist Margaret Mead. Their Balinese counterparts - Nyoman Kaler, the dancer Camplung and the parents of I Sampih - will be played by distinguished Balinese artists I Nyoman Catra, Desak Made Suarti Laksmi and Kadek Dewi Aryani. Sampih will be portrayed by Catra's son, Nyoman Triyana Usadhi.

The singers will be accompanied by two of the most innovative ensembles in the avant-garde world: New York's famous Bang on a Can All-Stars, directed by the composer, and Ubud's own Gamelan Salukat directed by Dewa Ketut Ali.

Why an opera about Colin McPhee?

"Everyone involved in this project follows in the footsteps of McPhee, Spies and the Balinese artists who interacted with them," Ziporyn explained.

"There are now hundreds of American gamelans, and none would have been possible without McPhee's trailblazing work. Every painting you see on the streets of Ubud grows out of Spies' work with the young painters of the 1930s," he argues.

"Yet the Bali they loved was the old Bali, the Bali that would change so radically in subsequent years. Part of the motor for that change was the connection to the West, so in a sense they themselves contributed to the end of that era. Making this opera is a way to reflect on that encounter, a tragic love story between two cultures. Opera always has to have a tragic love story."

The resumes of the Balinese artists involved in the production underscore this fact. I Nyoman Catra and Desak Made Suarti Laksmi are experts in traditional Balinese performance, but have also performed in plays and concerts worldwide. Dewi Kadek Aryani danced in Robert Wilson's I Galigo.

Dewa Ketut Alit is the co-founder of Gamelan Cudamani and has composed many works for gamelan in the United States and Canada, some of which have been performed in New York's Carnegie Hall. In some way, all the performers are the "sons and daughters" of McPhee, Spies and Sampih.

For composer Ziporyn, the opera is the culmination of a 28-year involvement with Balinese gamelan, which began for him with a research trip to Bali in 1981. He studied legong drumming with I Made Lebah, who himself had been a good friend of McPhee.

Returning to America, Ziporyn joined Gamelan Sekar Jaya, traveling with them on their famous first Balinese tour in 1985. As a professor of music at MIT, he founded Gamelan Galak Tika, composing numerous cross-cultural works, including the memorial work for gamelan and orchestra, "Ngaben for Sari Club."

He also collaborated with dalang Wayan Wija on a full-length wayang kulit (shadow puppet) play with a Western accompaniment Shadow Bang, which has been performed in New York, Boston and Amsterdam. In 2005, he brought Galak Tika to Bali, performing at the Bali Arts Festival. At the same time, he has traveled the world with Bang on a Can collaborating in the process with artists such as Paul Simon, Brian Eno, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sonic Youth, Ornette Coleman and Philip Glass.

A Hourse in Bali

A House in Bali will bring the sounds of West and East together - electric guitars with reong and kendang; violins and cellos with suling and genggong;opera with arja and kidung.

Will the mix be sweet or chaotic? Most likely it will be like the encounter between West and East itself: a combination of both.

Tickets are free, but reservations are encouraged. For information please visit [House In Bali Website].