The October world premiere of White Snake Projects’ Alice in the Pandemic – a virtual opera bycreator and librettist Cerise Jacobs and composer Jorge Sosa – met with well-deserved praise from every corner, for its innovation and the possibilities it revealed for the future of digital opera production. Building on that momentum, next week the company pushes the technology developed for Alice even further, with its presentation of Sing Out Strong: Essential Voices (Dec 19). This installment of White Snake Projects’ popular community song initiative features texts by health care workers on the front lines of the fight against the virus, as well as by writers and composers from the underserved populations that COVID has tended disproportionately to affect. Tickets are free, with a requested donation going to support the Coronavirus Response Fund for Nurses. To register for Sing Out Strong: Essential Voices, click here.
Early in the pandemic, when White Snake Projects pivoted to move Sing Out Strong: DeColonized Voices to an online format, the Boston Musical Intelligencer declared that the company had “set a new standard for online concerts in the age of pandemic.” That success served as a stepping-stone to Alice in the Pandemic, which now returns the favor, its technical innovations playing a key role in the December production of Sing Out Strong: Essential Voices. The one issue that those developing Alice had to table for further consideration was that of combining live instrumental music with the live singing; the three singers were performing in their separate locations to a prerecorded accompaniment. The new edition of Sing Out Strong takes on that challenge, combining live piano and cello accompaniment with the singers’ performances even though all participants will be remote from one another. Each of the ten writers and ten composers has also been invited to say something about their piece, so the task of wrangling a large number of live video feeds in sequence during the course of the event is added to the technical problem of syncing the simultaneous performances.
Most of the writers for Sing Out Strong: Essential Voices are drawn from the ranks of frontline health care workers who have been battling the pandemic for much of the year, including a helicopter flight nurse, a physician tending Native American populations in Arizona, and workers in the COVID wards of major East-Coast hospitals. Two writers are BIPOC students at Boston International Newcomers Academy (BINcA), a public high school devoted to recently arrived immigrants that has been an important partner for Sing Out Strong since its beginnings. Indeed, all the writers reflect the ambition of White Snake Projects and Sing Out Strong to give a voice and a platform to those whom the prevailing culture tends to neglect. As more than one of the writers knows firsthand, these people are also among those most threatened by the virus.
The ten composers selected for the project represent an equally diverse and eclectic group. Jerod Tate and Marina López return to Sing Out Strong after being featured in previous programs. The other eight – Eric Delgado, Matt Frey, Patrick Holcomb, Michael Ippolito, Breezy Love, Dylan Trần, Stefan Weisman and XiRen Wang – range from students to DJs, singer-songwriters and professors, hailing from all around the country.
The performers for Sing Out Strong: Essential Voices are soprano Carami Hilaire, who earned raves for her portrayal of the title character in Alice in the Pandemic; mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit, praised for her “bold stage and vocal presence” (Boston Classical Review) in White Snake Projects’ 2018 production of PermaDeath; pianist Nathan Ben-Yehuda, winner of the 2017 Yamaha Young Performing Artists award; and cellist Agnes Kim, described as a “hair-raising performer” by the Boston Musical Intelligencer. Tian Hui Ng, Orchestra Director and Associate Professor of Music at Mount Holyoke College, is the Music Director. Jon Robertson, one of the technical innovators who made Alice possible, is the audio engineer, and broadcast engineer James Ruth, stage manager Miguel Flores, and production manager Taylor Hansen round out the technical crew.
The critical enthusiasm for Alice in the Pandemic left little doubt that this year’s pandemic-necessitated dearth of live performance had created a receptive environment for innovative online alternatives. Opera News called the production “wildly imaginative, musically powerful and technically courageous,” while the Boston Musical Intelligencer found that it set “a new standard that is undeniably contemporary, accessible, immersive, and relevant.” The technical crew came in for especial praise, with the Wall Street Journal declaring that “the tech wizards … created a remarkable new environment for operatic experimentation,” and Seen and Heard International finding that “the visuals … elevated Alice in the Pandemic to a place where opera has never gone before, especially the animation which conveyed emotion as deftly as the music and those who performed it.” The same review noted that “with just three instruments … Sosa crafted a score full of complexity, nuance and beauty.” Broadway World agreed, praising the “rapturous” score as well as the “stellar libretto, polished performances, and … cohesive, engaging visual world.” The review concluded: “Cerise Lim Jacobs and her cohort of innovators at White Snake Projects chose … to craft something that reinvents the presentation of opera and is scrupulously designed, meticulously shaped, and competently executed from the ground floor upward.”