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3 Questions: Evan Ziporyn on his new opera

Evan Ziporyn
Evan Ziporyn
Christine Southworth

While a master of many forms of music, Evan Ziporyn has a particular affinity for the sounds of Bali. Ziporyn, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music, has been involved with Balinese gamelan - a kind of percussion orchestral music - since his 1981 Murray Fellowship from Yale University. In 1993, three years after coming to MIT as an assistant professor, he founded Gamelan Galak Tika, a popular performing group. Yet Ziporyn, a composer and musician, writes and performs music ranging from classical, hard rock, alternative to ensemble. He is a composer and soloist with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, a high-energy chamber ensemble, and has toured as a saxophonist with Paul Simon.

Ziporyn now adds another credit to his lengthy resume: an opera based on a true-life story that combines Balinese and Western musical forms. "A House in Bali," based on a 1930s memoir of the same title, traces the roots of the West's century-long infatuation with Bali, through the true story of three Westerners - composer Colin McPhee, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and artist Walter Spies - during their 1930s sojourn in Bali. Ziporyn composed the music, which will be performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars and a Balinese gamelan directed by Dewa Ketut Alit, with choreography by Kadek Dewi Aryani. Marc Molomot, Anne Harley and Timur Bekbosunov will perform the roles of McPhee, Mead and Spies, respectively.

"A House in Bali" ( will premiere on June 26-27 in the Puri Saraswati, a part of the palace complex in the village of Ubud, Bali; it will be performed on Sept. 26-27 in the Zellerbach Auditorium at the the University of California, Berkeley. (See The MIT News Office caught up with Ziporyn by e-mail while he was in Bali preparing for the production.

Q: Why did you choose to create an opera as opposed to another kind of musical form?

A: The word "opera" just means "works" - and to me it means total theater, a combination of all the performing arts - music, theater, dance, lights and costumes, etc. This is what it meant to Wagner as well, but that doesn't mean all opera has to sound like Wagner - not that there's anything wrong with that. I am in fact working with three opera singers (mainly from Baroque opera, as I prefer those vocal qualities), and the piece does tell a story, but I'm also working with three traditional Balinese singers, whose voices and mannerisms have nothing to do with western opera or, for that matter, western music.

Q: What is your source material? What will the music be like?

A: "A House in Bali" is based on a memoir of the same name by the first Western composer to travel to Bali, Colin McPhee. McPhee heard the first recordings of Balinese gamelan in 1928 and immediately went there to study and document the music. He did a tremendous job of it: his book and transcriptions are still considered the definitive source on the music of the period, both by Westerners and the Balinese. And he loved Bali. He came back to America as WWII loomed and, sadly, never got his life back on track. His own music was never the same, and he died without ever finding a way to return. He's a very important figure to me, both a model and a warning, and his story is truly tragic: unrequited love, but the object of affection is a culture, rather than a person.

As with the singers, the instrumental music brings together two worlds. My own ensemble, Bang on a Can, is involved, and our instrumentation is basically a rock band with strings. Beyond that, I have a full Balinese gamelan - 16 musicians from the Ubud area - and the combination of these disparate sounds mirrors and frames the story. They come together and drift apart, mesh and clash - just as they do in my own imagination and, I think, as they did in McPhee's.

Q: Is there anything that is particularly characteristic of MIT in the opera?

A: Only that it's sui generis or "in a class of its own." There have been other operas that have employed Balinese music for color or exoticism, but I don't know of any piece that's interweaved these two cultures so extensively. There may be a reason for this; we'll find out.

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