Galvanized by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, Cerise Jacobs and her activist opera company, White Snake Projects, began a process of development for a new production that would stand as a monument of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The result is the virtual opera Death by Life, which explores the intersection of systemic racism and mass incarceration using texts written by incarcerated writers and their families, with a score by five Black composers—Jacinth Greywoode, Leila Adu-Gilmore, Jonathan Bailey Holland, David Sanford and Mary D. Watkins—representing a broad range of ages and styles. The opera builds on the experience gained through the outstanding success of last year’s Alice in the Pandemic, which made enormous industry-changing strides in digital presentation that were lauded by critical voices from Opera News to the Wall Street Journal.The singers are able to perform live and synchronously from remote locations thanks to the ingenuity of the company’s audio engineer, Jon Robertson, who has solved the latency problem in digital performance. The sets are immersive 3D environments created in Unreal Engine by Curvin Huber, White Snake’s Director of Innovation. Death by Life premieres in cyberspace on May 20 for the first of three performances (May 20, 22, 25).
The process of creating Death by Life began under the guidance of collaborative partner Alice Kim, Director of the Human Rights Lab at the University of Chicago. She alerted the White Snake team to a trove of essays written by currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, from among which seven were purchased for use as the basis of the libretto. The authors are Raul Dorado, Mary L. Johnson, Monica Cosby, Andrew Phillips, Phil Hartsfield, Joe Dole, and Devon Terrell. In the midst of their daily struggle to come to terms with life under the constraints of the U.S. penal system, they are also poets, philosophers, activists, and a mother who became a “lifer” in spirit because that was the fate of her son. Since it was important to White Snake Projects to bring these writers’ words directly to audiences, Jacobs preserved as much of the actual texts as possible while melding them into an organic whole.
Death by Life will be directed by Kimille Howard, Assistant Director of the recent James Robinson production of Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera; and Music Director Tian Hui Ng, who conducted Alice in the Pandemic, once again leads the remote cast and chamber ensemble.
The five composers contributing to Death by Life’s scorerepresent a broad range of distinctive compositional voices. Jacinth Greywoode is a New York-based writer, composer and music director whose works have been performed throughout the Americas as well as in Europe and Africa. Jonathan Bailey Holland, who during the 2018-19 season had the honor of being the first composer-in-residence with the Cincinnati Symphony, is also the Chair of Composition, Contemporary Music, and Core Studies at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Leila Adu-Gilmore is a composer-performer who has released five solo albums and composed for high-profile groups including Sō Percussion and the Brentano String Quartet. She has taught incarcerated men at Sing Sing Correctional Facility as a faculty member of Musicambia (Music as Social Change in Incarcerated Communities), and she sits on the Board of Directors of Die Jim Crow Records, the country’s first record label for the currently and formerly incarcerated. David Sanford is a Rome Prize and Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship winner, director of the contemporary big band Pittsburgh Collective, and Professor of Music at Mount Holyoke College. Finally, Mary D. Watkins is an eclectic composer and pianist in both classical and jazz traditions who often brings elements of ethnic, blues, gospel, country, folk and pop music into her original works. She has composed three operas, the latest of which, Emmett Till, was scheduled to premiere in New York until it was delayed by the pandemic.
Singers for Death by Life include soprano Tiana Sorenson, who has sung with Grammy-winning new music ensemble The Crossing and is on the 2020-21 roster of Boston’s all-female Lorelei Ensemble; mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford, a member of Harlem’s acclaimed Opera Noire; tenor Aaron Blake, winner of a 2017 George London Foundation award; and baritone Nicholas Davis, the only American ever to win the International Antonin Dvořák Competition in both the junior and song categories.
Leading up to the premiere of Death by Life there will also be three special events. On March 30 White Snake Projects hosts Art As Transformation, an interactive forumfeaturing Fifth House Ensemble, FreeWrite, and Storycatchers Theatre. On April 6 there is a virtual exhibition featuring the artwork of Renaldo Hudson, who had been sentenced to death before being released after 37 years in prison, and Carole Alden, who has just been released after serving 13 years for killing her abusive husband. Hudson’s painting Freedom Cost serves as the banner art for Death by Life. Finally, on April 13 there will be a panel discussion on the U.S. carceral system, moderated by Alice Kim.
About White Snake Projects
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), I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams (2019), and Alice in the Pandemic (2020).