Lake Toba shall be nominated as a UNESCO-Geopark!

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 Opera Batak Tournee 

 An encounter between tradition and modernity

Description of the project

The Opera Batak was reestablished in 2002 with the ambitious aim to reinvigorate a traditional art form but also – and perhaps foremost – to utilize well known forms of expression to transport a modern content. The group from Lake Toba in Sumatra plans to perform in Cologne, Berlin and Stuttgart to present its amazing skills to a european audience. A number of art work shops and  dance prsentations will be  held in various locations.

In a play arranged by Lena Simanjuntak current developments are dramatised and presented within a peculiar framework very uncommon for european spectators. The specific way of arranging the play, impressing as well as entertaining, makes it possible to address broad swaths of the population and to sensitize them about a range of subjects that are only at first glance detached from us.

All the players participating in the piece originate from the Batak region in North Sumatra and will be in Europe for the first time. The performances will take place in the Community Center Feuerwache in Cologne, the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, Berlin and in the Wilhelma Theater in Stuttgart.

The project is organized by the Deutsch-Indonesische-Gesellschaft e.V. Köln (German-Indonesian-Association Cologne)


Der rote Pfeil markiert die Lage des Toba Sees auf Sumatra.

Der rote Pfeil markiert die Lage des Toba Sees auf Sumatra.

The Batak people and the classical form of the Opera Batak

The Batak people have been living in the region surrounding Lake Toba for thousands of years. It is the largest lake in South East Asia and of volcanic origin. For a considerable part of the population it represents the primary source of subsistence. The music and performing arts of the Batak people, though deriving from mythical beliefs and practices of a distant past, are still part of their collective consciousness and a constituting element of their identity as a distinct ethnic entity.

In the performances of the Opera Batak these traditional means of expression are presented within a modern context and attached to contemporary themes and contents, a fact that affirms the reputation of the Batak of being an open-minded people willing to face the challenges of the present.

The classical form of the Opera Batak first appeared in North Sumatra in the 1920s as an itinerant theater. İn its endeavor to preserve regional unity and identity it also served as a means of resistance against colonial rule. Unlike other more conventional and media-orientated variants of the Opera Batak, PLOt-performances are characterized by their simplicity and the originality of their style. Topics of common concern like deforestation and water pollution are integrated into the plays to inform and sensitize the audience. Portraying a fictive flawless world bare of conflict or hardship is not at all an aim. Instead it is intended, that the common people are capable to recognise their day-to-day lives with their trials and tribulations in the plays.

The Batak are known for their frankness and usually show no reticence to voice their opinion. Thus, do the performances of the Opera Batak serve as evidence of how a bridge between tradition and modernity can be successfully erected.



The play

Women on the lakeside

is the title of the place performed in the common style of the Opera Batak. The story is inspired by the legend of the origin of Lake Toba and its two densely intertwined central themes are the preservation of the water supply and the role of women in society.

According to the legend Lake Toba was created because Horas had broken a vow he had given his wife who originally had been a fish. Before their marriage she had demanded, that he must never reveal this secret to no one and Horas had promised it.

One day although Horas became very hungry working in the field while waiting for the food his wife had said would be brought to him by their son. But the son, who had an inexhaustible appetite, had instead consumed the food himself. Horas became angry and called the child „son of a fish“.

Immediately afterwards the sky turned dark and heavy rain began to pour incessantly. Horas‘ wife didn’t know otherwise than to become a fish once again to save them from the rising waters.

But before doing so she demanded from her husband and son that they conserve the environment and guard the purity of the water, because the whole area would become a lake as a result of the formidable deluge.

„On the next full moon you will see me one more time and the beauty of the lake, that is now created, together with its magnificent surroundings, will by then also have become apparent.

For their sake you must protect the water and preserve the environment, otherwise there will be a huge disaster. Horas promised it, but he was not successfull, because too many people came to the lake especially during full moon.



The participants

The group’s home base is called the Pusat Latihan Opera Batak / PLOt (Opera Batak training center) and is located in Pematang Siantar / North Sumatra.

image (2)Thompson Hutasoit was born in 1968 in Tarutung and studied Literature at the University of Medan in North Sumatra. It was also there where he started his stage career by taking a role in a play performed at the university theater. Three years later he wrote his first script about a contemporary topic which was subsequently performed by a group of lay actors under his supervision. A large number of further performances for which he had written the scripts and who were put on stage by him followed.

Besides his passion for the stage Thompson has published a large number of articles, the majority of them about various aspects of the Batak culture. He was also the driving force whose initiative prompted the foundation of PLOt (Pusat Latihan Opera Batak / Batak Opera Training Center) in 2002.

image (7)Lena Simanjuntak is a member of PLOt and will arrange the play „Women on the lakeside“ written by herself. The story is based on an old Batak legend but also provides an insight into controversies within the local communities. Lake Toba has not merely a mythical significance but is also crucial for the preservation of the surrounding environment.

The local ecosystem is currently under threat by commercial exploitation and the fact, that the lake has become an increasingly popular destination for tourists.

Lena Simanjuntak was born in Bandung/West Java in 1957. From 1972 she attended the Arts High School in Medan and from 1975 she studied at the Academy of Theater and Stage Design in Jakarta. 1978 she began working as freelance journalist and artist and producer for stage plays and television broadcasts. 1984 she moved to Germany where she worked as freelance journalist for Deutsche Welle / Voice of Germany and completed a training course held by the pantomime Milan Sladek.

Her paintings were shown at numerous exhibitions. Lena Simanjuntak has always remained loyal to her calling for the theater and is living and working in Cologne. For more than 10 years she dedicates the bulk of her acitivities for the support of marginalized women in Indonesia. „The Theater as a instrument to educate and empower the population – mainly women“ is the name of her project through which – from Sumatra to Papua – she engages in contemporary stage work.

Article in „The Jakarta Post“ :

Link: „Women Empowerment Starts at Home“, an article about L. Simanjuntak by „Speak Up for Women“

The following picture shows the new team of 2015. A more detailed introduction of the actors will follow.








W o m a n

You created me as a symbol of fertility. Washed me in the sky’s gentle downpour of rain that came to rest momentarily on the foliage, turning to dew in the morning and flowing in the furrows of the earth heading for the winding rivers, pausing a moment to greet the lake before striding to the open sea. You placed the mantra’s song on my lips to preserve the earth. But why have you allowed the beauty of your creation to be destroyed and stained by greed and the lust to destroy our harmonious unity. This earth grows ever hotter because of human behavior. Look at the women at the lake’s edge groaning to see their children staggering as they search for clean water. Meanwhile, many men gulp down alcohol till they’re drunk, escaping from their problems and in the end, plunging into violence. (SILENT)


Forgive us, Lord of the earth and sky. Because we have torn up our pledge to you to preserve your creation. Like the faithfulness of the sun which rises in the east, traces the path of the earth spreading light, and takes its leave in the west, inviting the moon and stars to decorate the darkness of night, cover us with the blanket of your loving faithfulness. Save us from the lust to pollute the water, land, and the environment in which we live.


Hey, wind, waft your breath to seven kinds of causarina tree. Let me blend their fragrances into a mantra and scatter it to the eight points of the compass…Hey, woman at the Lake’s edge, blend your tears with that mantra to make a charm

to help you bear your suffering…






N a r r a t o r


I don’t know whether I was cast ashore here by accident or intention. But it sure hurts! My duty on this stage, other than to keep it clean, is also to straighten out those things that are not as they should be and to explain things that are already clear…Ah…. Ah…I mean, those things not yet clear. For example, just now there was a voice that whispered faintly. It wasn’t clear whether it was calling out or moaning, saying „oh my lake… Oh Lake Toba.“

Concerning the water and the lakes in this world of ours, according to the 1945 Constitution…sorry, I meant in the Holy Book. Oh, wrong again, I meant in the history books. I mean about the lakes, with Lake Toba as an example.

Lake Toba is a volcanic lake measuring 100 kilometres long and 30 kilometres wide, located in North Sumatra province, Indonesia. This is the largest lake in Indonesia, or in Southeast Asia for that matter. The volcanic island of Samosir is located in the middle of this lake. According to Wikipedia’s history…sorry audience members, I have to quote Wikipedia’s data so that modern people will feel it’s accurate and fits contemporary circumstances…Experts estimate that Lake Toba came into existence as a result of an eruption occurring around 73,000-75,000 years ago and that this was an explosion of the newest super volcano (a super-sized volcano). Bill Rose and Craig Chesner of Michigan Technological University estimate that the eruption spewed as much as 2,800 cubic metres of volcanic material, with 2000 cubic metres of inimbrit ground flow and 800 cubic meters of ash that is estimated to have blown to the west for two weeks straight. The volcanic ash was spread by the winds to cover half the earth from China to South Africa. The eruption continued for one week and the ash was thrown 10 kilometres above sea level.

Terrifying, isn’t it audience members? It’s just a pity that this awe-inspiring Lake Toba has never been viewed as part of miraculous nature’s heritage, something that could become a source of inspiration from which several kinds of knowledge could be drawn. Earth science, mathematics, geology, history, the sciences of living and life and so on. Go on, try to tell people about Lake Toba and almost certainly their first thought is of recreation…so its fate is to be simply a tourist destination.

Meanwhile, according to the Mythology of Lake Toba . . . .


S a m o s I r


Heyyyyy!  Don’t let your dialogue go on too long. It’s my turn to perform now.

N a r r a t o r

Hold on, I’m giving an introduction before you come on and the play begins. According to the legends of the Batak homeland, why did the explosion of the super Mount Merapi or the super volcano that eventually became Lake Toba occur?

S a m o s I r

Don’t tell everything at the start. The audience will leave long before we’re done.

N a r r a t o r

Okay…Boss. Members of the audience, before I hold my tongue (points at Samosir), this key character, who’s called Samosir, will play the part of the Farmer, Husband, and Father. If you need me, just call.

S a m o s I r

In the olden times there lived a poor farmer and he…Ah, this isn’t my dialogue. The Narrator should tell this part. Narrator…Narrator!

N a r r a t o r


What is it?

S a m o s I r

You should tell the beginning of the story that provides a picture of my life and surroundings, you know, not me. Because I’m the one who portrays or plays the role.

N a r r a t o r

You told me to scram on the double just a minute ago! So don’t pretend you’re so smart only to be trapped in your own stupidity! Come on, get over there and get your flute. You play your flute while I narrate. But be careful that your flute doesn’t drown out my dialogue.

S a m o s I r  – PLAYS THE FLUTE

N a r r a t o r

In the olden days as a result of a long drought, all the inhabitants of one village died of hunger. Except for a farmer named Samosir. He survived by chewing on some grassy roots that fell from a bird’s beak. Because the rains never graced the land with a visit, he left his home village to search for food. Till one day he came to a forest with plentiful fruit, flowers, a river flowing through it, and full of the back and forth twittering of wild birds. He was astonished and decided to dwell in that forest. He then opened a field and planted rice and vegetables.

Samosir lived with sufficient and even abundant food, but he was lonely.  Observe, dear members of the audience! – POINTS AT SAMOSIR

S a m o s I r

All trees sprout leaves and some bear fruit. All animals live in groups and form families. Birds twitter merrily calling out to one another. Flowers that can only sway when the breeze blows are able to spread their seed. Trees, though they compete to get the most sunlight nonetheless still live peacefully side by side enjoying the rays of sun that gently caress their leaves and trunks.

But I…I, a human being whom you created to occupy the pinnacle of earthly creation, you let me live all by myself. Must I die with no one to weep over my corpse? If that is indeed to be my fate…why don’t you take my soul this very instant?

N a r r a t o r

Yes … yes indeed people say, what is all the wealth and beauty for one’s life is gripped by loneliness. Let us live in a cave if only we have someone with whom to share our life.  Ah…Samosir don’t feel this way. You’ll draw me into your sorrow and make me weep too. I’m here, aren’t I, and you’re not alone.

S a m o s I r

Your presence can’t erase my loneliness. You’re here only as a friend with whom to share thoughts, but not one to share feelings. I’ve lost my family, my village, and friends to famine. But now I live in abundance while my soul is starving. I want a wife who can become my life’s companion. Living alone is so miserable.

N a r r a t o r

Enough … Samosir, don’t complain and weep like this. I won’t be able to continue our story in public because you’ll drag me into your loneliness. The day is growing late, go catch some fish to ear. You need to replenish your strength.

[Translation: Michael Boden  ]





Lake Toba

Lake Toba, located in the northern part of Sumatra, is the largest volcanic lake in the world and was created by the eruption of a Super Volcano.

The following link provides some back ground information :

Link: Nova Lessons From a Supervulkano




The Toba Caldera Complex, Craig A. Chesner

Link: Lake Toba Experience and Lessons Learned Brief


Batak People

Wikipedia on Batak People , Wikipepia especially on Toba Batak People

The Metropolitan Museum of Arts on Batak Culture

Musee du quai Branly, Paris

Batak Tribal Art

A special role takes the cloth called Ulos in the live of the Bataks. In the following Videoclip you can watch the complicated production process.

Sandra Niessen, born in Canada, now living in the netherlands spent many years in the tobaregion an is an expert on batak textiles. In her newest projekt „pulang kampung“ – back to the villages she brings the book she wrote „legacy in cloth“ to the old weavers living in distant villages, to let them know that there art is respected, and to encourge them to teach this art whitch is thausends of years old to the following generations. See: www.bataktextiles.com

Batak Music

You will find a description of the traditional batak music instruments at the blog: Musik Of Indonesia. Margaret Kartomi AM FAHA Dr Phil is Professor of Music at Monash University, Australia, an ethnomusicologist specialising on Indonesia and Southeast Asia, and the world authority on the music of Sumatra. She recomends the newly published Book by Julia Byl: „Antiphonal Histories: Echoes of the Past in the Toba Batak Musical Present„.

In the following Video you will see some members of the opera batak team, playing at there first vistit to Germany on Nov. 2. 2013 in Cologne.

Traditional Batak Music on the Nov. 2. 2013 at Cologne

Martogi Sihotang at Save Lake Toba Concert

Traditional Gondang Music at Save Lake Toba Concert

Martogi Sihotang teaches how to play the Batak flute

Some well know Batak Songs:

„Mardala Ahu“ by Viki Sianipar

„Sing Sing So“, by Exaudia Choir

Medley of 5 different Batak Songs by Exaudia Choir

Poda by Koor Ama

„Leleng“ promoted by Artis Batak

„Lissoi“, a song people use to sing in a lapo, the batak term for a pub

„Sinanggartulo“ newly interpreted by Siatar Rap Foundation

„O Tano Batak“ is the Hymn of the Batak People: