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Snake Peers into Rabbit Hole

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The real Alice

During its decade of existence, the self-styled “activist opera company” White Snake Projects, founded by librettist Cerise Jacobs, has provided Boston with operas based on Chinese fables (including one that went on to win the Pulitzer for music for composer Zhou Long), a combination CGI and live action videogame saga, a supremely unlikely comical extra chapter to the Book of Revelation, a heartfelt meditation on cultural dislocation and governmental cruelty, and more— BMInt’s index shows ten related reviews and articles.

Such an output of well-produced new works would exceed expectations from many larger operations, according to the publicist, yet from the its beginning the company has also insistently strained against the boundaries of the possible, tirelessly searching for a mousehole from which further White Snake Projects could roar.

As the pandemic has caused producers of live performing arts worldwide to reassess business models, Jacobs and White Snake Projects have proved fleet of foot, first presenting a digital edition of the community song laboratory Sing Out Strong: DeColonized Voices [BMInt review HERE], and then using the lessons learned therewith to vault to  the virtual opera Alice in the Pandemic, which, they say, brings new depth to Wagner’s Gesamtkunst concept. Alice’s visible and audible elements rest on a virtual Wonderland — a rabbit hole within a rabbit hole — in which a team of tech innovators has toiled for months to imagine, like the White Queen, as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Alice in the Pandemic premieres in cyberspace October 23, through October 27.

As many of us now know from Zoom meetings, when speaking voices intersect, the software can be thrown into panic. Imagine what might happen with three operatic voices compete for bandwidth from remote locations, each hearing a personal version of an accompaniment modulated through whatever gear is at hand, while trying to synch with video and CGI avatars. White Snake Projects and its team of technical collaborators set out to overcome these restraints, not only for Alice but also with a view toward aiding an entire industry missing live performance.

Among the collaborators is audio engineer Jon Robertson, also a composer and sound designer, based in Kansas City. He has created software to solve the critical latency problems — the variable delays built into the transfer of data from different systems — that plague live online collaborative performances. The StreamWeaver platform, created by Virginia-based video engineer Andy Carluccio, which acts as a hub for the different data streams complements Robertsen’s work and and has made it possible for the three live singers to broadcast in HD. Carluccio has also created software that converts singers’ facial movements into real-time data for the use of a third collaborator, director of innovation Curvin Huber, who is contributing the CGI component of the opera. Huber’s avatars need to be talented lip-synchers, a problem for which the new online context required radical rethinking of the onstage strategies he developed for past (and coming) productions.

Then these electronically assembled elements go to projections and lighting designer Jeanette Yew, who essentially stage-manages the finished livestream.

Choosing to update Alice in Wonderland was the easy part. When that concept was put on the table, the creative team of librettist Jacobs, composer Jorge Sosa, and director Elena Araoz. felt they had the perfect vehicle for this topsy-turvy time. Araoz explains her activist approach to the pandemic thus:

“One of the things that I most appreciate about my opportunity to work with White Snake Projects is their attention and clear focus on using opera and dramatic storytelling for activism. They are making work of the moment and for the moment. The urgency with which White Snake approaches new pieces and world premieres is a way of saying somebody needs to have this conversation right now and we have to do it.”

Sosa and Araoz had collaborated with Jacobs on I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams in 2019, so the three could fast-track their established working relationship for this project. Young soprano Carami Hilaire essays Alice, a nurse searching for her sick mother, as a hero and warrior; countertenor Daniel Moody portrays the White Rabbit and soprano Eve Gigliotti sings the multiple remaining characters, including Alice’s mother. Music director Tian Hui Ng leads the production, with recorded accompaniment of strings, electronics, and the VOICES Boston children’s choir led by artistic director Daniel P. Ryan.

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