BAM’s Bland Bali: Evan Ziporyn’s Opera Awaits a Rescue From Sensory Overload

In 1979, the American composer Evan Ziporyn, inspired by an album of gamelan music called Music from the Morning of the World, which he’d heard while working at a record store in New Haven, went, like many an artist before him, to Bali. At the time, he didn’t know that he was following, exactly 50 years later, in the footsteps of Colin McPhee, another Western composer who had gone to the island and, in some sense, lost himself there. McPhee is known today not for his music but for his memoir of his travels, A House in Bali, which Mr. Ziporyn adapted last year into an opera of the same name and presented at BAM, in an intriguing but muddled production, on Oct. 14 to Oct. 16.

McPhee, who died in 1964, is both the model and the cautionary tale for artists interested in encountering the musical “other.” After two extended trips to Bali, he left for good under ambiguous circumstances; he seems to have grown afraid of ghosts and was hounded by the police. When he returned to the United States, there weren’t the academic or musical resources–ethno-musicology departments, American gamelan orchestras–to express, like he wanted, an amalgam of Balinese and Western music, and he ended up not writing much music at all over the last two decades of his life. Mr. Ziporyn put it well in an essay for the Web magazine New Music Box last year: “Even those of us in his debt don’t want to end up living his life.”

But in fact it’s McPhee’s life that most interested Mr. Ziporyn when he came to write his opera. “I wanted to tell the story of my own artistic ancestor,” he wrote, “presenting my understanding of him as fully as I could: his accomplishments, his failures, his strengths, and his very human weaknesses.” As an experiment in cross-cultural exchange, the opera has many strengths. It is as a story, or even as a character study, that it’s flawed.

The music Mr. Ziporyn has composed, for an orchestra at BAM that consisted of members of the new music stalwarts Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Gamelan Salukat, is seductive, the jazzy lines of the Western music blending well with the shimmering metallic gamelan. The Western and Balinese groups play off each other as the opera progresses, coming together and falling apart in a way that encapsulates the tantalizing, ambivalent relationship between the two styles.

But the overall effect of the opera is curiously bland and timid. I was hard-pressed to imagine a response to the BAM performance that would come close to Mr. Ziporyn’s own epiphany at his first hearing of gamelan music 30 years ago. While the instrumental combinations are often inspired, the vocal writing is mostly generic. In that New Music Box essay, Mr. Ziporyn wrote, “[B]efore this piece I’ve never been particularly comfortable writing for the operatic voice,” and his uncertainty shows. The singers are good, particularly Timur Bekbosunov as Walter Spies, but their roles are characterless, and sound very much alike.

The opera takes place in eight scenes to a libretto based largely on excerpts from McPhee’s book, as well as the writings of two of his Western friends in Bali, the anthropologist Margaret Mead and the painter Walter Spies. There are “events”–the natives build McPhee’s house, he meets a young Balinese boy and becomes infatuated with him–but the mood is more reflective than plot-driven. “Myriad stories all begin the same/ The shadowplay’s introduction has finished” is a typical line. The libretto veers between such airy poetics and flat prose, and in neither mode does it fully flesh out McPhee’s personality; supporting characters, particularly Mead, remain ciphers.

The thinness of the characterizations, and the lack of differentiation between them, weren’t helped by the production, directed by Jay Scheib, which favored new-media spectacle over psychological nuance. BAM’s House in Bali was billed as a “multimedia opera,” and there was certainly an intentional evocation of sensory overload. There were video cameras all over, projecting as live feeds on big screens. Sometimes it was an image of things happening right in front of the audience, but sometimes it allowed you to see into closed-off rooms. This is voyeurism, giving us the same thrill we might get from, say, peering into Balinese culture. (Get it?)

The singers were directed to be aware of the cameras, and to perform for them, and the effect was very YouTube/MySpace, filtered through the decades-old theatrical innovations of the Wooster Group. It got nicely at the ambiguities of cultural collision circa 2010–the Westerner and the exotic “other” are constantly performing, both for each other and for themselves, and everyone’s self-understanding comes through media. But on a practical level, the nonstop video got wearying, as did the blaring overamplification, and made it difficult to discern the opera’s plot or feel close to the characters. As with social media, the closer we got, the vaguer people became. That might be a fine point for a term paper, but it felt out of place in this production, given the primacy of character in Mr. Ziporyn’s conception of the piece.

There were evocative moments in the production, as when the young male members of Gamelan Salukat mugged for the cameras while they added siding to a bare-bones room to create McPhee’s house. But much of the direction was unclear. If not for the synopsis and libretto BAM provided in the program, I wouldn’t have had any idea what was going on through much of the second act, which focuses on the Death in Venice-lite relationship between McPhee (sung by Peter Tantsits) and the young boy, Sampih. (McPhee’s wife traveled with him to Bali, but is, bizarrely, never mentioned in the book or the opera, and it seems that part of the composer’s decision to leave in 1938 was the Dutch colonial government’s crackdown on homosexual behavior.) There is an entire scene, according to the synopsis, detailing how Sampih is given dance lessons, but I don’t recall anything of the kind happening onstage.

What was onstage will be familiar to anyone who’s been to BAM in the past few years: the aesthetic of carefully curated messiness, the affectless motel décor, fluorescent tube lighting. The similarity of this production to so many others grates even more than the production itself. Colin McPhee is a fascinating character, and there is a real opera somewhere in here. Hopefully, at some point, his story will get the production it deserves.

BAM’s Bland Bali: Evan Ziporyn’s Opera Awaits a Rescue From Sensory Overload