Q+A with Jorge Sosa

Composer Jorge Sosa was all set to work with White snake Projects on the opera, Monkey: A Kung Fu Parable when President Trump revoked the DACA act. He and Cerise put Monkey aside and started work on I Am A Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams. Jorge talked with us about working with WSP, his influences, and his own experiences as an immigrant.

Jorge Sosa

Q: Did you draw inspiration from any other musical pieces or shows?

I draw inspiration from and often pay homage to a multitude of musical traditions. In the case of I Am A Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams, I use several musical quotations of pieces that add a layer of subtext to the piece. One of the most prominent of these is the “I Want To Live in America” motif from West Side Story, which appears at several key moments in the opera. I first heard this motif growing up in Mexico as part of Ruben Blades’ salsa song “Pedro Navajas.” Blades’ song is a take on Mack the Knife, re-incarnated as a Latino from El Barrio and uses the Bernstein quote to underscore his condition as an immigrant. It was only many years afterward that I heard West Side Story and realized the origin of that motif. I wanted to use this quote as a way to extend the musical dialogue about immigration, and appropriation, and because West Side Story is the last opera that I can think of that is centered around immigration. But who are the immigrants in West Side Story? The Puerto Rican Sharks are assumed to be immigrants and indeed are the ones that sing “I Want to Live in America,” however Puerto Ricans have been citizens of the United States since the 1940s, while the Jets who are defending “their territory” are actually Polish immigrants. My intention is to keep adding layers of interpretation to our work by using the quote to underscore Rosa and Singa’s questions about belonging, assimilating and adapting to their adoptive country.

Q: Do you have any memories of music growing up or in your childhood that have influenced your writing journey?

One of my fondest memories of music-making is sitting with my father Jorge Roberto Sosa and my grandfather Jesus Sosa, playing guitars and singing boleros and traditional Mexican songs at family gatherings. As long as I can remember, my dad and my grandpa would get together to play and sing on Sundays after playing dominoes or at any social function. When I learned to play the guitar I began to play with them and we became a trio. We even recorded some tracks at a studio as a way to keep a record of my grandpa’s singing and playing. Now that my grandpa has passed, I hope my son will learn to play the guitar and join us so that we can become a trio again. Rosa’s title aria in the opera is very much linked to these memories. Her music is a bolero, inspired by the songs that I learned from my father and my grandfather. It is a way for me to musically portray being rooted, grounded, and belonging to an ancient tradition.

Q: How has your journey as an immigrant shaped your life and art?

When I was about eight or nine-years-old, we moved to Texas. I remember being at the playground during recess and being chased around and beaten up by these two boys. They took my lunch and chased me around the playground every day for months. It was the first time that I understood myself as an outsider and became conscious of race. To make things worse, I couldn’t understand anything they were saying because I was just learning English. Not long after that, I met my friend Alejandro who was much older than I was and much taller than the two boys. He was also a recent immigrant, he did not speak English, and he was lonely like I was. We started eating lunch together and hanging out at the playground. The bullying stopped after that and I learned a valuable lesson about solidarity. At the same time, migrating to the United States gave me the opportunity to realize my most ambitious goals, and to work with some of the best musicians in the world. I met my wife in the United States, and we have built a home and a family. My wife and her family are also migrants—from New Zealand. They achieved their educational, financial, and family goals largely because of their willingness to take a risk and move across continents. I believe that migration is often necessary to achieve social mobility and that restrictions on this movement widen the gaps in our society, as they affect disproportionately those who are disenfranchised. 

Q: Who inspires you, in the performing arts or otherwise?

My main source of inspiration is my family, particularly my son Carlo Amado, who is always at the center of my thoughts, my heart, and my work. The lullaby that is quoted in the opera is one that I sing to him every night before he goes to bed. My wife Sarah is also a constant source of inspiration. As a woman’s right advocate she inspires me to speak up and try to make a difference, as small as it may be. My work is also inspired by my family in México who work hard every day to make a difference in our country, combating violence and injustice through education, art, theater, and music. We are a family of scholars, educators, and artists and we believe that through art and education we will be able to shape a better future for ourselves and others.

Q: What do you think of White Snake Projects commitment to being an activist opera company?

I hear all the time that opera companies and arts organizations need to find a way to bring younger, and more diverse audiences to their productions. With Sing Out Strong, White Snake Projects has made the community part of the creative process, given the community a voice, and put the community be at the center of the artistic project. This will hopefully translate into attendance at their main stage productions but it is not the ultimate goal. It is about how arts organizations can activate the community to achieve common goals, and about what we as artists can do to help our communities, especially those that are underrepresented and disenfranchised. This is not the time to be silent. It is the time to speak up for what we believe is right and to mobilize.

Q: How did you become involved with White Snake Projects?

I met Cerise Jacobs after a concert performance of my first opera La Reina in 2016 She was looking for composers to commission for her upcoming projects. We began to collaborate on Monkey, an opera based on a beloved Chinese legend. I had just completed the first draft of the piano-vocal score when the current President announced his intentions to roll back Obama-era protections for DACA—what is known as the DREAM act. The toxic anti-immigrant rhetoric and the political persecution of migrants was becoming hard to ignore. Cerise and I decided to put Monkey aside and start drafting a new piece in which we could explore the topic of immigration from our perspective. We started talking about what it means to be an immigrant, about our families, about our experiences, and the experiences of people that are dear and close to us. The result is I Am A Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams. In the process, we developed a strong bond and a transcendental friendship.

Q: If you had to swap roles with another member of the production, who would you want to swap with and why?

I admire all of them! I wish I had Cerise’s poetic language and determination, or Kirsten Chamber’s powerful voice, or Helen Huang’s musical agility, or Carla López-Speziale’s velvety musical sensuality, or Tim Steele’s ear, or Maria Sensi Sellner’s poise, or Elena Araoz’s clarity, or Zane Pihlstrom’s vision. However, I would absolutely love to trade places with Isis or Amy, the young girls who play Child Rosa and Child Singa. I would love to see the opera through their eyes, and experience being on stage in a large theater as young singers. I am sure it will be a transformative experience for them.

Q: What non-musical activity do you enjoy doing on your downtime?

I love spending time with my family. I love biking to the playgrounds in Central Park with my son and my wife. I love and live for the ocean and the beach. I love being with my family in México, eating, singing, and being loud.