The King's Witch
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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 65-70



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The King's Witch

Goenawan Mohamad


Background Notes

This is the story of Calon Arang, a Javanese woman of the twelfth century who was destroyed by the king; I have written the story as an operette.

As tradition tells it, Calon Arang was a powerful witch from Girah, an area in the Kingdom of Kedhiri. She had a beautiful daughter named Manjali, who could find no husband; for fear of her mother, no man would have her. Calon Arang became so angered by her daughter's plight that she spread pestilence throughout the kingdom. To solve the problem, King Airlangga ordered his most respected priest, Empu Bharada, to get rid of Calon Arang--no easy task as the witch owned a book containing all the secrets of sorcery.

Empu Bharada reasoned that to deprive Calon Arang of her power one had to first take possession of her book. He arranged a marriage between one of his students and Manjali. After their nuptial night, the groom stole the book, and in no time at all Calon Arang was divested of her power and destroyed.

Needless to say, this traditional tale is told from the king's point of view. One can assume that Calon Arang and her fellow villagers in Girah--destroyed along with the witch--would have composed a different version. The following libretto, written for the music of Indonesian composer Tony Prabowo, starts from this premise.

In my opinion, an operette should be very simple. I find European classical opera a ridiculous concept--except for two of Mozart's pieces, one of which is The Magic Flute--and I hate Phantom of the Opera-type musicals. I even consider contemporary operas like John Adams's Nixon in China unnecessary stage pieces. That is, I cannot imagine myself creating a theatrical work in which people communicate entirely in songs and arias. Their words should not be translated into musical notes. The music should be composed independently, not linked to the words. That's why my libretto only provides a set of images, a certain mood, allowing the composer to treat the words more as elements of sound in his total composition than as messages to be wrapped in bundles of musical notes.

Tony Prabowo understands and supports this idea. He likes Phillip [End Page 65] Glass's Einstein on the Beach; I saw parts of a video recording of it and loved it. When we did a dance-theater piece titled Panji Sepuh, the lyrics, the music, and the choreography were created independently of each other. The form took shape at a later stage of the process.

Tony and I imagine this operette as having a woman sitting with a dog and some other actors holding paper lampions. What I have tried to create is a libretto for a poor theater, a poor orchestra. It should be simple. It should be a new poetry.

Cast of Characters

CALON ARANG, the mother

MANJALI, the daughter

CHRONICLER I

CHRONICLER II

OFFICER

EMPU BHARADA, the priest

VILLAGER I

VILLAGER II

VILLAGER III

ASSISTANT TO THE VILLAGE PRIEST

CHORUS/ORCHESTRA

CHRONICLER    I Last night nothing better occurred to the King than to jump
  out from a dream of birds. Of flies, of burnt moths of the
  monsoon.
He walked to the inner garden through a room darkened by
  the fetid wings of the gods, in small steps like ghostly notes
  of time.
"The dawn will be deathly pale," he said to himself, and he saw
  in the mounted mirror a face that gleamed like a snake-egg's
  skin.
"Let's remember something," he muttered.
The face squinted, and then grinned.

VILLAGER I    I remember the King's troops arriving at the outskirts of
  Girah at dusk.
Torches filled the plain. The whole village was watching
  the bated breath of the flames.
They came to take Calon Arang away.

OFfiCER    She is a curse to all of us, this terrible woman, Calon Arang!

VILLAGER    I So said the officer to the priest who blessed him in the Temple
  of the Falls.
It was an arid...