Jakarta Concert Orchestra

Opera Kali
Avip Priatna, conductor
Batavia Madrigal Singers
MUSIC : Composer, Tony Prabowo ; violas, Stephanie Griffin ; pianos, Adelaide Simbolon, Irsa Destiwi ; percussions, Alex Lipowski, Jared Soldiviero
CAST: Kerry Walsh (Kali), Bo Chang (Gandhari), Binu D. Sukaman (Kunthi), Michael Smallwood (Sanjaya), Christopher Tonkin (Dhestarastra)
PERFORMERS: Narrator: Michael Smallwood.
Choir: Batavia Madrigal Singers
PRODUCED BY : Komunitas Salihara ; director, Jay Subiyakto ; conductor, Avip Priatna ; librettist, Goenawan Mohamad

Hari/Tanggal/Jam :
–/ 22-23 November 2008 / —

Teater salihara


    THE story begins with the scene of Gandhari and Dhestarastra, mother and father of the one hundred Kurawa. They both can not see. Dhestarastra was blind from birth, and Gandhari bound her eyes which according to Goenawan Mohamad’s version, was not out of empathy for her husband, but rather as a protest to the gods. Husband and wife are distraught. They could not see it, but all of their children have gone to fight on the battlefield of Kurusetra. They can only hear the eyewitness report of their nephew, Sanjaya. And the news is devastating, difficult for the bearer as well as those who must hear it: Each and every Kurawa has died, beaten by their opponents the Pandawa.

    Kali expresses the pain of the violence of war for those who experience it?not only for the losers, but for the victors it is also futile, win and become charcoal, lose and become ash. Meanwhile, for Brahma, controller of fate from heaven, it is normal, something which has been predestined. It has become the scenario: there is no wrong, no loss. Brahma (sic. not Shiva) commands Kali, his assistant, to wipe out everyone who must die. Without hesitation or despair, he must carry out the orders.

    Goenawan wrote the libretto for Kali, the opera composed by Tony Prabowo. The poetry feels different from most of Goenawan’s writings, because the flow and rhythm of the words were made for the music. But the character is also the same, gently poetic on the one hand, while sharp and piercing on the other:

    Brahma created Death
    He said, Kali will come,
    She will wave her purple hands,
    And things will be all right.
    Inside, the gathering said nothing.
    Later someone saw Death hopping
    From a slow-moving moon,
    Dancing with a headless corpse.
    It was Kali’s first dance.

    The libretto is translated into the language of music by Tony Prabowo, a seasoned composer whose compositions have been played by leading musicians around the world. Unlike Mozart, who studied hundreds of librettos before composing his opera masterpieces, Tony mulled over this one only, until he knew the flavor of each word, grasping the essence of the poetry, to create a new sound, a new language, which may have even surprised the poet. I only absorbed its expression: the sorrow and despair, says Tony.

    There are none of the sound effects often found in music accompanying dance, theater and films. All of the sounds are arranged in a tight composition written in partiture. The idiom can be called contemporary or modern music which is more closely related to the history of western music. The chorus is exquisitely sung by 13 women and 11 men reminiscent of the music of Philip Glass from the 70s-80s. This is the best choir group we know, said Goenawan and Tony.

    The five main vocalists are also outstanding. Binu D. Sukaman, the only Indonesian, plays Kunthi. The four others are: Kerry Walsh (Kali) and Bo Chang (Gandhari) from America, Christopher Tonkin (Dhestarastra) from Australia, and Michael Smallwood (Sanjaya) from Germany. The singing is in western operatic style, although Tony’s music on the whole is not in that style. We don’t like opera, in which everything is sung, says Tony. ?Some parts are just read…basically according to what is needed and what works, he adds.

    Tony is deeply aware of the dramatic element, but all of it is arranged in a musical idiom. There is no screaming or moaning in Kali as in Goenawan’s libretto there are no harsh words or cries; the words are arranged in poetic verses. A loud sound can become a soft utterance, while soft, hushed words can be heard as loud as thunder. The choir standing in a row above, on the right and left sides of the black box theater, are not just strong voices: they are dramatic without acting.

    Unfortunately, Goenawan’s entire libretto was not performed at Salihara. Only the last three parts of Tony’s composition were performed. (The first two parts of the libretto were composed by American composer Jarrad Powell). Yet, with only 60 percent presented, musically it did not feel incomplete, perhaps only too short. The melody and words merged into one, came to life, through the performers producing a perfect range of sounds. For Tony, no matter how good the composition, it will mean nothing if it is not performed by the right person: it is not a melody or words that he aims for, but a power that can only be expressed by a skilled performer.

    Tony-Goenawan’s piece was staged by leading popular stage director Jay Subiyakto. Jay arranged the scenario (movements), the setting, and the lighting. The visuals were impressive using sophisticated and complex facilities and techniques carried out by expert stage artists. Through the use of a gigantic hanging reflector, the performers seemed to be up in the sky: a new technique providing a new impression. The lighting created lines or pillars which made the musicians and their instruments appear to be anchoring the sky to the earth.

    In contrast to the union of Goenawan’s words and Tony’s sounds, Jay’s visuals still felt like something tacked on externally. These three major artists have not yet become a mutually empowering triangle, as are Kali, Kunthi and Gendhari in the libretto. Perhaps that is because this is the first time Jay has worked together with them. His staging at times seemed to burden the sounds and words, and even the performers. That reflection of images in the sky, while conceptually brilliant, is somehow inappropriate, expensive, or extravagant in terms of efficiency: that short a scene doesn?t seem to require such treatment.

    The costumes, fit with the western style of the music (clearly not trying to be Javanese), appear glamorous, and in line with young tastes. But, they are different from the music and poetry. The headdresses of the five main characters include one that is flashing silver, illuminated by lamps within it (Gandhari), one that is golden like a Mandailing bride (Kunthi), one like the headdress of a native American chief (Dhesarastra), one like an enormous mushroom (Sanjaya), and one that seems to be transformed from the model of an Indian god (Kali). All of which are innovative in the Indonesian performance context.

    When Kali first appears, from the upper-center of the back screen in a flood of lights or projections, a powerful energy emerges. Her voice is also awesome. But it’s only momentary. The power of the visual evaporates in trivial movements. Even more troublesome, in appearance, is the final scene, when Kali must dance, in a mass of spots from flashlights while Kerry Walsh is a highly skilled singer, she is not a dancer yet she must dance. The scene ends with a downpour of fireworks, implying a glorious light with a pungent aroma.

    But maybe my impression of the staging is wrong or just one perception. From another side, maybe, Jay’s contribution was able to attract new faces to the audience of Kali. The tickets for all three performances were sold out several days in advance: the most popular performance in the history of Salihara, which is still only 2 months old. Some of this audience were familiar with Jay’s work, but did not yet know the art of Goenawan and Tony, and vice versa. After the performance, in the Salihara Cafe, a group of young people were conversing: Great performance, yeah…even though they sang out of tune, they were solid.

    Jay said the chance to work with Goenawan and Tony was not just an opportunity, but also a challenge. He carefully studied the script and the expression of the music for Kali. His enthusiasm and confidence grew; he wanted to change the view of the majority of the public that is afraid of contemporary art because it is difficult to understand. And yet, it is possible to enjoy art without having to understand it.

    If that is true, and successful, then the audience for Goenawan and Tony will change, infiltrated with new ideas, narrowing the divide between two tastes, serious and pop. Indeed, aside from Jay’s role, Kali has undergone a change, both in libretto as well as in music. Like culture, that is always moving: sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes pausing for a moment. Art requires the efforts of many people, including the audience. Its meaning is not preordained, not some certainty which is final, but rather it comes to life and gives life to both the artists and the viewers. The audience is part of the creator of meaning, which sometimes is ?hopping, from a slow-moving moon.

    Tempo No. 15/IX/9-15 December 2008

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