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Asia Pacific Festival: Asia-Pacific Music-Theatre

Asia Pacific Festival Review: Asia-Pacific Music-Theatre

Review by Lyndon Hood

Asia-Pacific Music-Theatre
Spinning Mountain - Balinese shadow puppet theatre
Simcheong-ga - scene from Pansori Korean Opera
Fatal Desire - opera scene

Te Whaea, National Dance and Drama Centre
12 Feb (8pm), 14 Feb (6.30)
2 hours (including two intervals)

Asia-Pacific Music-Theatre gives Wellington audiences a rare chance to sample musical theatre works based on three different traditions - two of them using forms that UNESCO has declared Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Spinning mountain is one of these, working in the Indonesian shadow puppetry (Wayang Kulit) tradition. The performance was an extract from an hour-long piece being created for the coming children's festival at Capital E. Talented artists from the Balinese tradition - composer Wayan Yudane, puppeteer Kadek Setwain and librettist Ketut Yuliarsa - are working with New Zealand composer Gareth Farr and Director Nina Nawalowalo (as well as a number of other performers) to present a tradition Balinese story for a New Zealand audience.

Judging from their advertising image, the presentation here was a simplified staging. On on side of the stage, four musicians and the instruments (percussion ranging from the metallophones and gongs of gamelan to rock drums and including a few hanging flower pots). On the other, the screen on which the puppetry was projected.

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First and last to appear in the puppetry - as is traditional - was the 'Tree of life' (Kayonan), a shape that seemed not unlike a feather or leaf as it leapt and spun, forming a link between the gods and the performance. The title of the production could bring to mind shadow-theatre tradition as a whole - the Kayonan can also represent a mountian.

There is a specific mountain (Mount Mandara) at the centre of the story, which judging by their publicity is the 'churning of the ocean of milk' episode from the Puranas. However, what we saw was primarily setting the scene.

A father and son - engagingly characterised both in their movement and voice - provided a frame as the old man began a once-upon-a-time story inspired by the sight of a lunar eclipse. The scenes that followed showed the inhabitants of this golden age - gods, demons and an impressive range of animals - doing their thing. For the gods and demons, this didn't include talking in English, but then it didn't seem that any plot was occuring for us to miss. The widely varied vocal tones of the puppeteer conveyed attitude nicely, and what we could see was testament to his skill.

The shadows of Kadek Setwain's puppet displayed a remarkable degree of liveliness. The father's turning to send a perfectly-placed glare at his lippy son, a giraffe shaking itself, a rabbit's lope - some of the puppets are clearly quite intricate (many, for example, have moving mouths) but the degree of animation is unexpected even considering that.

Fans of gamelan music and of Gareth Farr, will probably not be surprised that the music tended to the driving, a wall of sound built out of tuned percussion, augmented only occasionally by vocals from the pupeteer (and sometimes the clap of puppet's rod on board) and one English-language scene-setting song from a musician.

Especially in the main theme, the music also had a startling speed. The rolling patterns for the metallophones, played on the with a single hammer, demanded a pace and precision that was impressive, especially with two players (Farr himself being one) working in perfect sychronisation.

The full production of Spinning Mountain will premiere at the Capital E National Arts Festival on March 21 and 22.

If you can imagine a vocally-animated storyteller whose changes in pitch and timing reached the point where they were actually singing, you'll have some sense of the way Pansori works. Described variously as 'Korean Opera' or 'Epic chant', the performance is limited to a singer/actor/orator (in this case, Park Aeri) collaborating with a drummer (Kim Woong-sik), to tell one of the five extant story cycles of the tradition.

This performance was of a scene known as 'Sim Cheong throws herself in the water' from Simcheong-ga. Sim Cheong sacrifices herself to a sea god knowing her blind father will receive rice for a temple donation that he has been assured will restore his sight (this devotion does not go unrewarded in the rest of the story).

Both performers are dressed in traditional costume, and make a simple and attractive stage picture. The singer stands and sings or speaks narrative or dialogue from the stories. The drummer sits, playing one face of his drum with a hand and beating the other face, and tapping the drum's wooden body, with a stick.

It's perhaps indicative of the rhythmic skill demanded of the singer that the percussion is used simply as a kind of punctuation or emphasis, rather than actually thumping out a beat in the way someone of the Western tradition might expect. The drummer also vocalises ("Hm!" "Aah!") and these noises also fall precisely in their rhythmic place, at the same as giving explicit reaction or encouragement to the singer. Given that a full performance usually lasts hours, the support is no doubt welcome.

It also seems to be a useful device for leading audience reaction. The drummer, as well as performing, is part of the singer's audience. At times Park Aeri was delivering her performance to Kim Woong-Sik, which enhanced the sense of intimacy she had developed with the charming personality of her storytelling. I don't know how accurate it was, but I was left with the impression of a form with roots in a folk tradition rather than a more formal one.

This attractive sense of informality despite (or probably, in fact, as one facet of) a performance of great technical skill. From the theatrical ability to simply hold the attention of the audience (many of whom, if I'm any example, had no knowledge of the language and had only the vaguest sense of the action) to some remarkable musical and vocal ornamentation (onomatopoeia feature strongly at one point) to the sudden and precise fall of her fan at the end (I cannot but assume to represent Sim Cheong's descent into the ocean) - it was all remarkably well executed.

The style of the music began with the singer pulling back and forth across a slow beat - giving a highly maritime effect. Other moments put me in mind of the vocals in American folk-rock or the rhythmic singing of hip-hop - without the need for the addition of a beat.

These elements all combined into a compelling example of traditional storytelling.

The last performance was a scene from Chinese composer/NZ resident Shen Nalin's opera Fatal Desire, directed by Sara Brodie. In the scene a Poet (James Meng, tenor) recalls the beginnings of his sexual relationship with a lost Lover (Wang Xing-Xing, soprano), which is contrasted with his Wife (Linden Loader, mezzo) and he longing for their absent son - sometimes using something close to the same phrases or similar sounds.

The orchestral music had something of an echo of the surging rhythms and sudden, isolated sounds of the Pansori drums, and made a discordant, uneasy background over which the vocals ran more smoothly. The music was performed by the Contemporary Music Ensemble Korea, conducted by Gao Ping. The players used a mixture of western and traditional Chinese instruments - often swapping between the two - to what I assume was often a quite non-traditional effect.

English surtitles were projected over the stage as part of an ongoing video projection above the simple set (platforms, a bed, a chest) that was placed upstage of the orchestra. Images, many based around water, such as ripples on a woman's skin or a child playing on a beach change to compliment or reflect the contrast being presented in the performance. The simplicity of the libretto, and a, possibly deliberate, unclearness in the surtitles as to which character's line was which during duets reinforced in my mind the idea that, in opera, the words are not the main thing.

The tone of the piece changes as the Wife imagines a counting game with her son (his answering voice provided by an actual child skipping adorably through the orchestra) and the vocal clicking rhythm of the game extends through the orchestra in an escalating canon.

Finally a new voice is added as the Lover sings, inviting the Poet to her bed. The ominous buildup in music that heralds their laying down is intriguing, causing us to reflect that the relationship of this reminiscence has ended, and hinting at the tragic conclusion of the opera. In the context of this morning-tinged scene, the intriguing image of a rather striking line (from memory) "Dawn reveals hidden crevices, as delicate as ammonites in a museum" actually does resonate. Its uneasiness also seems to sit well with the tone of the production.


Asia Pacific Festival Website
Asia Pacific Festival - Asia Pacific Music Theatre
Capital E! - Spinning Mountain
Scoop Full Coverage - Fringe 07

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