Following the resounding success of the virtual opera Death by Life, treating the subjects of long-term incarceration and systemic racism, Cerise Jacobs and her activist opera company White Snake Projects announce their third live virtual world premiere opera since the beginning of the pandemic. A Survivor’s Odyssey: The Journey of Penelope and Circe uses characters from Homer’s Odyssey to explore the ongoing crisis of intimate partner violence (IPV), which includes domestic violence and rape, especially as exacerbated by the pandemic lockdown. With music by New York composer and interdisciplinary artist Mary Prescott – whom the Washington Post calls “fiercely focused … uncompromising … a bright light cast forward” – and a libretto by Jacobs, the opera will feature a cast of four remote singers and the cutting-edge audio and visual technological innovations that have become White Snake’s hallmark. A Survivor’s Odyssey premieres live in cyberspace on September 24 for the first of three performances (Sep 24, 26, 28).
The subjects of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests that have absorbed the world since early 2020 are not unrelated: the pandemic, like so many other tragedies, has had a disproportionate effect on people of color. White Snake addressed those themes with two virtual operas: Alice in the Pandemic, lauded by critics from Opera News to the Wall Street Journal, and the recent Death by Life – “a testament to the power of clear vision” (I Care if You Listen). Now the company turns to the theme of intimate partner violence, which became a pandemic within the pandemic as shelters were closed and victims locked down with their abusers. As Jacobs explains:
“It isn’t that any of these issues are new. Racism, violence against women, and economic disadvantage have always been there, but the pandemic forced them into public consciousness, as well as making things that were always problems into full-blown crises. This spurred White Snake Projects on to tremendous evolution on the social action front, and to fulfill that part of our mission we had to have tools – digital tools – that could reach people in their isolation. Inventing those tools was the other half of our evolution, and the marriage of the two resulted in the pandemic trilogy.”
A Survivor’s Odyssey will be directed by Elena Araoz, “a director with deep wells of imagination” (Time Out New York) who also helmed Alice and the company’s 2019 live production I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams. Marsha Thompson, praised by the New York Times for her “warm, agile soprano” and “secure technique,” sings the role of Circe; mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider lends her “deep expressivity and impressive stamina” (New York Times) to Penelope; “powerful and elegant” (Los Angeles Daily News) countertenor Patrick Dailey, who played MiniB in White Snake’s 2018 production of PermaDeath, sings Telegonus; and bass-baritone Nathan Stark, who “commands the stage with a winning presence” (Opera Today), sings the role of Odysseus.
As with Death by Life, White Snake Projects is building an ecosystem of activism on IPV with community partners leading up to A Survivor’s Odyssey. Two forums will be held, one discussing the issues surrounding IPV in the pandemic and the other a virtual exhibition of artworks by survivors, with a discussion of the uses of art as a means of healing.
The technology developed for Alice was a game-changer in terms of digital presentation. The Wall Street Journal declared that “the tech wizards … created a remarkable new environment for operatic experimentation,” while Seen and Heard International found 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.” Death by Life only upped the technological ante, taking audio engineer Jon Robertson’s innovative but labor-intensive solutions to online latency issues and automating them with a newly developed plugin called Tutti Remote; I Care if You Listen declared that the “singers … were impressively synced, tuned, and compelling.” The same review was quick to add that much more was achieved than just technical feats: “The digital medium creates a container to elevate original stories, avoid melodrama, and advance a nuanced artistic vision. … Death by Life’s success is not just as art that transcends its impressive technology, but in the company’s communal infrastructure that informs thoughtful work and builds a bridge to further action.” Seen and Heard International agreed: “Death by Life is great theater with an activist edge that brings to mind Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart or Jonathan Larson’s Rent. … And, like the other two plays, Death by Life left me with tears in my eyes.”