A Night at the Javanese Opera

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The competition over, we had time to explore Solo.  Solo (Surakarta) had been its own kingdom like neighboring Jogjakarta. But the royal family didn’t back the Indonesian independence movement  in 1949 and their power ceased when Sukarno founded the new nation.  Jogjakarta, on the other hand, had been fiercely supportive and became a “special territory.”  The sultan is still the legal ruler, not a figurehead.  (In subsequent posts I will get to our lunch and visit with Prince Prabukusumo of Jogjakarta (the sultan’s brother) at the palace restaurant – amazing food and company.)

We strolled the wide avenues of Solo and wandered through a gate.  Two men were sipping tea and  Kian struck up a conversation. We learned we were speaking with the director of the Jawa (Java) Opera in Solo.  The other man was dressed in black and had long thick sideburns and a brooding regard.  He was Zambrot, the head actor of the troupe.  We were invited to film the famous Ramayana opera http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramayana.  Java had once been Hindu and the Ramayana story still figures heavily in the cultural heritage and philosophy of the island.  Sections of the epic opera are performed almost every night throughout the year as a service of the government.  Admission, about 39 cents.

The day of the performance we went to the Sukho temple (one of the late Hindu temples in Java and almost completely tourist-free) with Duto Birdvit and our new driver Pak Joko.  Duto edits several online magazines about birds and generously offered to take us around for a couple of days.  At the temple a crew was shooting scenes from the Ramayana and we hung out with them for the afternoon.

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We arrived at the opera stage door at 6:30.  After plugging the small camera into the sound board, we went backstage.  Zambrot was there with a new haircut.  He said that attendance had dropped off when Suharto was thrown from power but was up again.  The roles changed every night and the actors didn’t know who they would be playing until forty-five minutes before the show.  Soon the director came into the dressing room and read out the assignments.  The actors made a beeline for the costume room and then back to get dressed.   It turned out that several of the performers at the temple were also in the play that night.  They were from a local arts high school and training for the Ramayana.  The boys paid slow and special care to wrapping and rewrapping their sarongs and dusting their bodies with powder.  One said, “Hello mister, I am very nervous to talk to you.”  I smiled and wished him “sukses.”

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(Backstage, Zambrot (also him at the top of the post), actors preparing, the gamelan orchestra pit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamelan)

As is the case on many floors in Indonesia shoes are banned from the stage and wings.  Even the tech guys work barefoot.  The gamelan orchestra had begun to play (Javanese gamelan has singers, Balinese usually does not) and the warriors took position next to the king on stage.  One of the tech guys hoisted the rope for the main curtain and the show had begun.  DSC02837

You don’t need to understand the language to get the basic twist of the story. Sita is abducted by Ravana, the evil king, and there is lots of flashing lights, slapstick and even a section (I found out later) that is a comic comment on current events.  The movements are very deliberate and purposefully recall the two-dimensional movements of Javanese shadow puppets which were used to tell the story before the use of live actors.

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The house was about 1/10th full (no white people, sauf moi) and some of the people seem to routinely come to nap or for the air conditioning.  Kids running around = no problem.  Talking (loudly) = no problem.  And don’t expect applause – there isn’t any.  Members of the gamelan orchestra were taking little chit chat breaks in between their parts and others were texting.  All of this would normally make me a pissed-off audience member, but this is just the way it seems to work here.  And the actors didn’t seem to mind. 

Just for us (and a really nominal fee) the troupe had adjusted the performance to include scenes with Jatayu, the bird that dies trying to rescue Sita.  Not really sure how we will fit it into the final film but it seemed great footage to have.  The actor offered to stay after the show and I got on stage (barefoot) to shoot some scenes with him. 

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Zambrot came out to ask how he was (he was really, really good) and to tell us he was the head of a Christian church in his village.  Would we like to visit?  We were leaving Solo the next day so couldn’t.  But we think that this company might one day make another great focus for a documentary. 

More soon – stay tuned…

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Filed under 2-5 A Night at the Javanese Opera

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