As COVID-19 plays havoc with arts programming around the globe, creator and librettist Cerise Jacobs and her activist opera company, White Snake Projects, are once again pointing the way ahead, with a nimble pivot to sidestep the uncertainty surrounding fall programming. The poli sci-fi opera Cosmic Cowboy, an exploration of colonization that was originally slated to premiere in Boston in September, will now be pushed back until spring of 2021. To take its place, Jacobs has collaborated with composer Jorge Sosa and director Elena Araoz, both recent creative partners, to produce a new online opera: Alice in the Pandemic. Addressing a subject of worldwide concern through its protagonist, Alice, a nurse trying to navigate her way through a distorted and unfamiliar landscape to find her sick mother, the opera represents a timely meditation on what it means to live and try to function in a barely recognizable world. Music Director Tian Hui Ng will lead the cast of three principal singers and a chamber ensemble comprising string quartet and electronics. The children’s chorus VOICES Boston, led by Artistic Director Daniel P. Ryan, will also join the production. Alice in the Pandemic premieres in cyberspace on October 22–27, 2020.
The Boston Musical Intelligencer praised the recent online performance of White Snake Projects’ community song laboratory Sing Out Strong: DeColonized Voices as “a profound and topical song recital,” declaring that the “hybrid, multimedia experiment succeeded” and that White Snake Projects had “set a new standard for online concerts in the age of pandemic.” That success inspired Jacobs to explore further the possibilities of virtual presentation. As she describes it:
“There’s definitely a synergy between Sing Out Strong and Alice in the Pandemic. Sing Out Strong was a tiny production, but had huge implications for White Snake Projects as a production company. We pulled it off within two or three weeks, taking brand new work and mounting it remotely on a digital platform. That gave us the courage to say, now that we have a better understanding of the medium, we think we can do better. As a small company, we don’t have the resources to move productions outside, for example. On the other hand, we’ve been able to invest heavily in technology with our partners and to experiment with it in a way that bigger companies generally won’t risk doing, so we decided our task now was to double down on that and create a show that is the culmination of our history of looking at tech in a different way.”
Like Sing Out Strong: DeColonized Voices, Alice in the Pandemic will be presented on a digital platform, so the creative energies of White Snake Projects’ technical team are critically important to its success. Since that initial online project, audio engineer Jon Robertson has solved the latency problems that plague so many attempts to use digital platforms for live musical performance. As a result, the three principal singers will now be able to perform live together synchronously while sheltering in place in different locations. Video engineer Andy Carluccio, along with his company, Liminal Entertainment Technologies, is providing a specially modified version of Zoom to control camera cuts and integrate with the media server pipeline.
Among those technologies from past productions that can be exploited to great effect online are the real-time facial motion capture and CGI featured in 2018’s PermaDeath. Curvin Huber, a Professor of Interactive Media at Becker College and a vital collaborator on both PermaDeath and the postponed Cosmic Cowboy, is the Director of Innovation in charge of the CGI component of Alice in the Pandemic. As facilitated by projections designer Jeanette Yew, the online platform also offers unique possibilities for mediating technology. In a CGI world, avatars of Alice and the White Rabbit can occupy the main screen, while their humans perform from what might now be considered “box” seats.
Composer Jorge Sosa and director Elena Araoz were both collaborators on White Snake Projects’ 2019 production, I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams. I Care If You Listen praised Araoz’s “insightful directorial touch” and Sosa’s score as “well-balanced to the story’s narrative,” containing “strong emotional peaks and valleys, magnified by the characters’ impassioned performances.” The Boston Globe elaborated that Dreamer “might be White Snake’s least logistically complex affair to date. It’s also the best.” Sosa’s eclectic style is a natural fit for the topsy-turvy story of Alice in the Pandemic; ICON magazine even unwittingly foreshadowed the opera when it described 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.”
White Snake Projects brings diverse, timely and relevant opera, based on original stories by Cerise Lim Jacobs, to the main stages of Boston and computer screens around the world. Like the legendary White Snake demon, which became human in order to live more intensely, White Snake Projects transforms present-day experience into passionate new American-made opera. The company believes there is no better way to bridge the chasms of race, national origin and gender than through a reimagined art form combining music with cutting-edge technology, theater and dance. This ambitious project kicked off in September 2016 with Ouroboros Trilogy, a trio of grand operas including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Madame White Snake, and continued with REV. 23 (2017), PermaDeath (2018) and I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams (2019).
Oct 22–27, 2020
Online on digital platforms
VOICES Boston, Daniel P. Ryan, Artistic Director
Composer: Jorge Sosa
Creator and Librettist: Cerise Lim Jacobs
Director: Elena Araoz
Music Director: Tian Hui Ng
Director of Innovation: Curvin Huber
Projections and Lighting Designer: Jeanette Yew
Audio Engineer: Jon Robertson
Video Engineer: Andy Carluccio
Producer: Rachel Sturm
Executive Producer: White Snake Projects