I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams, which premiered on Friday at the Emerson Paramount, is timely, poignant, and artistically satisfying. Its five leading roles enjoyed able support from the Boston Children’s Chorus and Juventas New Music Ensemble, conducted with aplomb and urgency by Maria Sensi Sellner. Local impresario Cerise Jacobs developed her libretto in collaboration with Mexican-born, New York-based composer Jorge Sosa to contextualize some of Boston’s best up-and-coming female voices in an exploration of dislocation and transformation in America.
The two main characters, an undocumented Mexican immigrant (Rosa, a “Dreamer” who is waiting in jail before being deported) and her court-appointed attorney Singa Loh (an ethnically Chinese immigrant from Indonesia), dominate the stage with heartrending ariosos and duets. They meet in Scene 1, after a short wordless choral piece accompanied by bells. Sosa’s opening music is warm and welcoming in the dark, recalling (lost) childhoods; it quickly shifts to a colder, recitative-laden chamber orchestra texture, full of sudden silences and subtle, jabbing dissonances to illuminate the sparse prison environment at center stage. Read the full synopsis HERE.
Played by a perfectly consistent pair of light, lyric sopranos, Singa takes on most of the vocal fireworks, and her transition from young girl (played by local student Amy Li) to professional woman (sung with gusto and clarity by Chinese-born soprano Helen Zhibing Huang) is moving and transformative. Composer Jorge Sosa thoughtfully integrates youthful memories of the adult characters by keeping the “child” self nearby on stage and even allowing for brief moments of duet, with transparent orchestrations tinged with vibraphone.
Ami Li is a recent graduate of the new Boston Symphony Children’s Chorus and longtime member of the Boston Children’s Chorus, the group that provided an onstage, Greek chorus throughout the 90-minute production. Recently heard as Young Nala in the Winchester Cooperative Theater’s production of The Lion King and as a member of the recent Tanglewood on Parade premiere of James Burton’s The Lost Words, reviewed HERE.
Li’s clear, ringing soprano cut through Jorge Sosa’s dense and turgid orchestral textures to provide some of the most emotionally direct singing of the night. Helen Zhibing Huang is perfectly cast in her role as the adult Singa, as this graduate of NEC, Bard, and Eastman has combined a career as a solo performer (two notable appearances at Portland Opera) with that of a musical activist, founding Voices of the East in 2016, an artistic collective advocating for young Asian and Asian-American classical musicians.
Huang alternated smoothly between speech and song, carrying the audience’s emotions with her into the stratosphere with phrases that topped out around high D. This was a perfect role for her to take on following her success in the coloratura role of the Fairy Godmother in Massenet’s Cendrillon at NEC, as it allowed her to address the audience directly and to demonstrate her dramatic gifts. Costumed in a blocky, royal blue pantsuit, Singa had freedom to move around (mostly) stage left, creating a stark contrast with her client, Rosa.
Although confined to a green-grey cell, mezzo-soprano Carla López-Speziale showed intense commitment in bringing the adult Rosa to life. Designer Zane Philström invited us into her world by raising the cube-shaped space she occupies a few feet off the center stage with a platform and by suspending a glowing square of harsh, white light above her head. Rosa’s simple olive drab costume matched the sheets on her cot and the toilet of the prison, strikingly setting her apart from Singa, and from her child self, sung with verve and richness by local student Isis Contreras Perez. Perez, a three-year veteran of the Boston Children’s Chorus, gave a vivacious, smoky-voiced interpretation of Child Rosa which brought depth to that character’s struggles. Perez and Li talk about the production HERE.
López-Speziale harnessed a lot of repressed rage and energy as the wrongly-imprisoned Rosa. She has had tremendous success portraying women in charge and in control (think Carmen, Azucena, and Dalila). A rich-voiced Mexican diva with graduate degrees in voice from Manhattan and top honors in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, she smoldered and paced like a caged tigress. Since her voice contrasted in timbre and weight with that of Singa, Sosa’s purposefully mis-balanced duets proved especially successful in allowing her to provide ironic commentary on her situation while partnering/supporting the soprano soloist vocally in several scenes. Hers voice should grace Boston’s other great concert and dramatic stages (let’s hear her take on Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder soon).
Librettist and White Snake Productions founder Cerise Jacobs describes how the two leading roles to show contrast and irony in Scenes 2 and 5: “The two women have taken parallel paths to America: Rosa’s family fled the drug cartels in Mexico and Singa’s family, racial persecution in South East Asia. Both families seek a better life. Yet their futures in America are predetermined by their economic status in their home country. Rosa comes from a poor farming family; Singa, from a wealthy business family. Wealth is able to buy lawyers, education, and legality – the much-prized green card.”
Soprano Kirsten Chambers stood out in five (!) demanding dramatic supporting roles. Each time she appeared, Chambers momentarily stole the show and interrupted the smooth flow of the dramatic action. As two female gang members (Scene 2), she took on a menacing presence and introduced one of the recurring musical motives (“Snip, snip, snip”), when threatening the children. As mother (Scene 4) to both Child Singa and Child Rosa, she brought warmth and nostalgic comfort to harsh settings, dressed in more colorful garb, and sang fragments of remembered stories that would shape the girls in her care. Composer Jorge Sosa’s contrasting treatments of her realistic dialogue (sung simply, in major modes, with transparent orchestration) and her storytelling arias (rising to thick Straussian climaxes) evolved seamlessly, bringing out the dangerous aspects of girls’ upbringing. Singa later described the repeating telling of myths and stories as “brainwashing,” and the contribution of Juventas’ incisive, driving approach to the more minimalistic aspects of the orchestra score in these places was crucial. Conductor Maria Sensi Sellner navigated the frequent meter changes and sudden interruptions of rhythm with skill and subtly, supporting the constantly evolving dramatic conversations. In a long single-act English-language opera with no real “numbers,” the orchestra became the glue that held together a wide range of styles, rhythms (both classical and Latin), and harmonic worlds. Juventas’ trademark professionalism and experience with new scores provided a solid foundation over which the singers could address the audience, and each other, in a realistic way. Surtitles in English were projected in white onto the exposed (black) back wall of the theater over the heads of the children’s chorus, emphasizing the text and the harshness of the setting.
Kirsten Chambers’s third role was her most arresting: a take-no-prisoners opposing counsel with flowing blonde ponytail, wearing a shockingly red business skirt and jacket. Acclaimed for her portrayals of Salome (Metropolitan Opera) and her Angel in Angels in America (New York City Opera), her participation in the development of Jacobs’s and Sosa’s opera allowed them to demand Wagnerian heroic heft. When she strode out from stage left to interrupt Scene 7, the stage light lost its color: the audience was shocked into silence by sudden red (Prosecutor), white (the prison light), and blue (Singa) elements engaged in a contemporary legal argument. Jorge Sosa chose to use the children’s chorus to both support and undermine the musical discussion. Their well-blended voices wove simple chant, children’s songs, melodic elements of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” and rhythmic fragments from the refrain of Bernstein’s “(I Want to Live in) America,” into the most powerful ensemble number of the opera.
Since Dreamer features a cast mirroring the ethnicities of the women depicted, it is a huge bonus that the production team is “intentionally diverse” and mostly female, reflecting the ambition of Jacobs and White Snake Projects to integrate original opera with social activism. An immigrant herself, librettist and creator Jacobs described her personal and political inspiration for Dreamer in a personal statement HERE.
A new multi-year community engagement initiative called “Sing Out Strong,” designed to produce new art songs related to themes from the company’s main stage operas, frames this new NEA- and Massachusetts Cultural Council-supported show. The resulting ten art songs from partnering local composers and writers featured in Juventas’ recent “Voices of America” preview concert. One can read the complete texts HERE.
Three songs from the collection preceded the show, with performers seated in front of the main curtain. “A Life of Honor”, with text by Cape Verde native and Boston International High School student Rute Pires, was sung by soprano Melissa Joseph, supported by pianist Julia Scott Carey (playing a Yamaha electric piano plugged into a big Roland amp) and classical cellist Minjin Chung. The trio was well balanced, with Carey providing controlled transitions between Andante march-like sections and more florid, virtuosic rhapsodies. Joseph clearly enunciated Pires’ story while effortlessly shifting between speech, arioso, and full-voiced song. Shuying Li composed the music. A native of China and graduate of Hartt and Michigan, based in New York; her recent operatic commission, Bloodlines, was presented at Merkin Hall by the American Lyric Theater, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra premiered her Out Came the Sun at Carnegie Hall in 2017.
The second song, “Life Changes,” paired a text by current Boston resident and native of Haïti Joel Louis about his educational and transformational experiences with music by Jorge Sosa, the evening’s featured composer. Mezzo-soprano Vera Savage gave a convincing rendering of this story, closely matched by sinuous melodies from the cello. Sosa’s music ranged expressively through a variety of textures and harmonic palettes, supporting the text with nuance and a tough of irony. The final piece, “The Big Deception”, is a duet for mother and daughter about the turbulent rules affecting green card and visa applicants. Melissa Joseph portrayed (mostly) Irene Da Silva, who was present in the front row audience to celebrate her 90th birthday and successful return to the U.S. after ten years of waiting in Brazil. Vera Savage portrayed (mostly) Ivete Souza, her adult daughter and co-author of the song text. Oliver Caplan, artistic director of Juventas and award-winning local orchestral composer, contributed the music for “The Deception;” this duet led off the ten-song collection commissioned by White Snake Productions and provided the most intimate and moving music of the evening.
Cerise Jacobs and composer Jorge Sosa have already begun another collaboration, as Sosa is developing a 2019 commission for White Snake Projects (Monkey, A Kung Fu Puppet Parable) that will premiere in 2021. Dreamer continues through this weekend at the Emerson Paramount Theater. Tickets for Saturday and Sunday are HERE.