The newest project from creator and librettist Cerise Jacobs takes on an unusually topical subject for opera: immigration. For her new opera, I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams, the “intrepid and artistically ambitious” (Opera magazine) Jacobs teams up with composer Jorge Sosa to tell the story of an undocumented Mexican immigrant, Rosa, a “dreamer” who is waiting in jail before being deported, and the relationship she develops with her court-appointed attorney Singa, an ethnically Chinese immigrant from Indonesia. With a cast carefully chosen not only to reflect the ethnicities of the characters but to bring to the project a wide variety of perspectives on the immigrant experience, as well as an intentionally diverse, mostly female production staff, Dreamer reflects the ambition of Jacobs and her production company, White Snake Projects, to integrate original opera with social activism.
Mexican-born composer Jorge Sosa is a current resident of New York and Chairperson of the Music Department at Molloy College. He works in a wide range of styles, from electronic music to opera, with eclectic influences that include folk and traditional music from around the globe, chant and early vocal polyphony, Afro-Latin rhythms, and jazz harmonies. ICON magazine recently characterized his work as “not music to accompany afternoon tea with Mom; it’s more along the lines of sending your consciousness on the Cosmic Turnpike where the exit ramps are never permanent. Eerie, haunting, dreamlike, at times nightmarish—and highly recommended.” His first full-length opera, La Reina, commissioned by the American Lyric Theater, was performed in a concert version as part of the 2016 PROTOTYPE festival in New York. Another collaboration with Jacobs is also in the works: the opera MONKEY, A Kung Fu Puppet Parable, based on a Chinese legend, is scheduled to premiere in 2021.
Jacobs originally intended MONKEY to be her next production. But as that piece began to take shape, the cultural conversation around immigration in the U.S. began to heat up, and when the DACA program came under threat she took it as a call to action. Contacting Sosa, she proposed they temporarily set aside MONKEY and instead put their shared experience as immigrants to work on a new piece that would address the fast-growing crisis. The resulting story fits well into Sosa’s recurring themes: science, ecology, multiculturalism, spirituality, and social justice. For MONKEY he had already developed a working knowledge of Chinese music, so he approached the music for Dreamer as a mosaic of styles reflecting the intersection of cultures in the story. He drew on folk music from Asia and Mexico, integrating it with elements of jazz and classical music and even quotes from West Side Story, as filtered through Ruben Blades’s “Mack the Knife”-inspired song, “Pedro Navaja.”
Also central to the score of Dreamer are the voices of children. At a time when the plight of immigrant children has become increasingly politicized, the opera allows the voices of the children themselves to be heard, as a commentary on and counterpoint to the struggles of the adults around them. A workshop of the opera last fall with the cast principals, two child soloists, and the Boston Children’s Chorus provided Jacobs and Sosa with some valuable feedback from parents who are themselves immigrants and began a new series of discussions as they shared their own experiences.
As Jacobs says in a recent blog post on the White Snake Projects website:
“We want to be an activist opera company – one that integrates social activism and original opera; partners with other activists to cross-promote important social issues and opera, and redefines how opera is made by involving young people from our community. … As an activist opera company, we need new language to talk about opera, and new, younger, diverse voices offering different perspectives. Only then can we give voice to the diversity that is America, engage new audiences and bring opera to our communities.”
No stranger to the special practical and psychological challenges facing immigrants, Jacobs was born and raised in Singapore while it was still a British colony, and left her native country with her family in the early 70s as the threat to ethnic Chinese mounted throughout southeast Asia. While her family settled in Australia, she continued on to England and then Canada before finally settling in the U.S. She also had a successful career as a litigator before she began writing opera librettos, so Dreamer marks her most personal and autobiographical story to date, one with profound themes belying the simple structure of its story. After last fall’s premiere of the video game opera PermaDeath, her “most technologically ambitious production to date” (Boston Globe), the new opera is her opportunity to scale back the technical sophistication of recent productions in favor of a subject of critical and increasing relevance to the entire world.
PermaDeath added to the consistent track record of sensational, critically acclaimed productions that Jacobs and White Snake Projects have developed in Boston. After its premiere last fall, the Boston Classical Review praised Jacobs’s “slick libretto” that “tells a convincing and engaging tale of friendship and loss.” Opera News found the opera “an exciting new work brimming with new ideas and possibilities,” declaring that “a powerful synergy arises from combining videogame animation with opera” and finding Dan Visconti’s score “physical, infectious, even saucy.” Calling PermaDeath “a vehicle for inventive music and staging,” the Boston Musical Intelligencer added that “Visconti’s setting of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43… is a standalone masterpiece.” Highlights from the world premiere of PermaDeath can be seen here.
Cerise Jacobs: I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams world premiere
ArtsEmerson Robert J. Orchard Stage
Rosa: Carla López-Speziale, mezzo-soprano
Singa: Helen Zhibing Huang, soprano
Mother/Gangster/Prosecutor: Kirsten Chambers, soprano
Composer: Jorge Sosa
Creator and Librettist: Cerise Lim Jacobs
Director: Elena Araoz
Music Director: Maria Sensi Sellner
Children’s Chorus Director: Jason Holmes
Costume and Set Designer: Zane Pihlstrom
Lighting Designer: Jeff Adelberg
Producer: Wanda Strukus
Executive Producer: White Snake Projects
© 21C Media Group, January 2019