A House In Bali at BAM

I was completely unprepared for A House In Bali at BAM. I hadn’t read any of the advance press and since I was running a little bit late to the theater I didn’t have a chance to read the press kit – or even the program- before the show started. I had to interpret it entirely on its own terms, without supplemental knowledge or materials. So I didn’t know that it was adapted from the memoirs of “ultra-modernist” composer Colin McPhee, or that the two other principal characters were meant to be McPhee’s fellow émigrés anthropologist Margaret Mead and painter Walter Spies. I probably should have done my homework.

This new opera by Evan Ziporyn, directed by Jay Scheib and performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars with a 16-member Balinese gamelan orchestra, is an adventure in sensory overload, a dizzying spectacle of exoticism and thundering musical complexity. It is at times overwhelming and other times quite beautiful, a disorienting tale of cultural colonialism, of the dissonance of east-meets-west.

The story is simple – McPhee, bored, frustrated and uninspired by Paris in 1932, heads to Bali where he becomes immersed in the local music and decides to stay for awhile, building a house in an inauspicious location outside of a village near the graveyard. He is mystified and entranced by the behavior and attitudes of the Balinese. They, too, are suspicious of their new neighbor. They overcome cultural misunderstandings and conflicts. McPhee becomes fixated on a young boy named Sampih who he tries to mentor, unsuccessfully. Eventually, his intellectual and creative curiosity sated, and with the prospect of armed conflict in Bali coming ever closer, McPhee returns to the West transformed and creatively renewed.

DIrector Jay Scheib has staged the opera so that the two cultures are literally in opposition – McPhee’s house is on stage right, the Gamelan Orchestra, dressed in native gear, is on stage left. The Bang On A Can All-Stars, in period European dress, are upstage center. It creates a tension in which the “order” of the house is constantly besieged by the encroaching “chaos” of the natives. To be honest, I found the story a little creepy. McPhee is such a bumbling Westerner and he so easily “otherizes” and exoticizes the Balinese – it is unsettling, he might as well be a character out of Rudyard Kipling. I don’t think that was Scheib or Ziporyn’s intention – I think what they meant to convey was an artist being renewed and creatively engaged by assimilating new, exotic ideas from this wonderful, Balinese culture. But with the presence of the anthropologist and the painter and the dialogue conveyed in the libretto it is hard to escape the idea that McPhee is just the tip of an exploitative iceberg coming to corrupt the people of Bali. Benignly, of course, but corrupting nonetheless. Things take a particularly creepy turn when the McPhee character develops a fascination with the boy Sampih which feels a little too NAMBLA-y for my comfort.

Furthering the sense of chaos and disorientation is Scheib’s use of video – there is a large video screen suspended above the house stage right, which alternately displays footage from handheld cameras and two cameras on tripods affixed to the floor stage left. This is edited together and mixed live. The entire opera unfolds against a massive video backdrop which displays images of Bali, some of which are photos taken by Margaret Mead herself. In Scheib’s previous work his references to cinematic language have been more overt and contextual – here it mostly creates a sense of fragmentation and dislocation. I would need to see the opera again to discern the patterns and logic between what was being filmed and what was presented in an unmediated form.

I’m not a music critic but it was the music that I felt most successfully – and least problematically – brought East and West into dialogue. Where the story of McPhee’s journey to the east felt uncomfortably colonialistic, the musical genre-mixing was dynamic and fascinating. The opera opens very much in the Western tradition – orchestra playing, character singing and narrating the story. Then the Gamelan orchestra, complete with traditional dancers, enters and plays their music. Eventually the musics collide into this cacophonous, complicated and compelling wall of sound and rhythm.

The show ends rather abruptly, it seemed to me. McPhee just kind of decides he’s inspired and leaves. Which was weird. It felt truncated – like this was actually a three-hour endeavor that was cut down to about 90 minutes or so. A House In Bali is an impressive, if unsettling accomplishment. I would like to see it again to start to peel away some of its many layers.

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