Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mata Hari, the opera

Last night I attended a vocal rehearsal of Vincent McDermott's opera, Mata Hari, at ISI's pascasarjana campus. Originally performed in English in the US, the opera has been translated into Indonesian and will receive two performances in Taman Budaya Yogyakarta in July. The opera features a cast of 5 principals and a chorus of 16, along with an orchestra of 10 gamelan players and 5 Western musicians. The music is complex, with frequent changes of metres and much use of dissonance. There are 8 scenes and the running time will be about 90 minutes. The conductor is Ed van Ness and the director is Joned Suryatmoko.

I met Vincent before the rehearsal and had a chance to talk to him about his work and life. Vincent has been living in Yogya for the last 5 years, and has a Batak wife and a two-year-old child. An academically trained composer, Vincent was introduced to gamelan around 1965 while he was living in Amsterdam for a year by Ernest Heins. Heins brought him to the Kunst sound archive and Vincent promptly fell in love with the rich sonorities of Javanese gamelan. Trained at Penn, he taught for many years at Lewis and Clark in Portland, Oregon, and founded the gamelan programme there. He also established the William and Mary gamelan. Vincent originally came to Yogya as a Fulbright professor of musical composition at ISI after his retirement from Lewis and Clark. He had previously visited Solo on a number of occasions, with stays ranging between 1 and 3 months. He realised quickly though that Yogya was a better destination for long-term living, due to its mixture of modern/Western and classical/Javanese musical scenes, and has stayed on.

Mata Hari is one of two operas that Vincent has written featuring gamelan. (The other has a libretto by Kathy Foley and is about Panji.) Mata Hari puts forward the conceit that the dancer Zelle received a boon of dance from Nyai Roro Kidul, goddess of the south seas. When she becomes too arrogant, the goddess abandons her and she is executed.

I found the singers to be very strong, the rehearsal pianist quite sharp, and van Ness very sensitive musically. There was a real sense of purpose in the rehearsal - no fooling around. At van Ness' request I spoke to the singers for a few minutes about the historical Mata Hari and answered a few questions. A shame I won't be able to see the performances....

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