Something incredible has happened for opera! The capacities of 2020 computer technology and extreme talent from a diversity of disciplines have been productively pooled into a singular performance experience that has exceeded all of my expectations: a new kind of opera has premiered in the 21st century…perhaps better than ever, and there’s no going back.
Imagine moving through a video-game virtual world of animated cityscapes and fantasy lands, populated by animated characters who dance and sing with beautiful human voices. Now imagine the arias of these digital rabbits and ghosts and humans, all who can and do sing simultaneously thanks to the impressive management of cutting-edge sound synchronization, accompanied by a tight, fresh musical score for chamber ensemble and unseen chorus. Then know that all of this is merely the performative vehicle for a penetratingly timely libretto, which addresses not only the practical and emotional drama of life during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also perspectives of 21st-century politics, civil rights, economic inequity, psychological issues, and morality. Alice In the Pandemic is a piece of supreme realism; with its audience, the opera embraces the realness of virtuality, employing it as its stage of play.
White Snake Projects has not only produced a relevant and relatable opera, but they have also fashioned one incredibly accessible to the wide audience. So long as one has access to a computer and the internet, admission is but a click away for whatever price the intrigued web-surfer feels capable of paying. And not only will the visual and semantic realism seem familiar to most audience members, but the music is also exceptionally approachable. Jorge Sosa’s score is undoubtedly innovative, but in resourcing a collage of colloquial musical vernaculars, it maintains a universal comprehensiveness.
The impressive versatility of the performers complements the score. Carami Hilaire [as Alice], Daniel Moody [as the White Rabbit], and Eve Gigliotti [as everyone else] represent the entire cast of this re-invention of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” in which Alice, who in this rendition works as a nurse, determines to see her mother before the latter dies of the virus in the hospital. Though the opera was but one act, about an hour in duration, the nearly constant presence of all three characters, especially Alice, must have required an effort and energy of Olympic proportion. We watched not only their digital avatars on the screen, but also live video of each, singing and acting in their separate locations. Although the inevitably domestic/zoom-call-style backgrounds of these live-action panels initially felt concerning, this ultimately enhanced my connection with the aesthetic. That they were dressed in regular clothes and uniforms, working and living in their homes and apartments, evoked the reality of recent months quite strongly.
Yet, the animated scenes proved most impressive. Instead of lighting and set designers, this opera had an extensive team of technologists, each with unique specialties and responsibilities — from animation to CGI to sound design [see the BMInt preview HERE]. Without a doubt, they deserve the live-stream equivalent of a standing ovation. The early “Time is Elastic” or Rabbit Hole scene and the final Candlelight episode [The Fair scene] struck me most of all, both musically and visually. Rabbit Hole featured the White Rabbit avatar dancing and singing through a video-game style virtual cityscape. If this weren’t sufficiently fantastic, we then follow the rabbit with nurse Alice, and ultimately dive with her through an ATM screen rabbit’s hole. She arrives in a storybook illustration-style setting is in time to deliver a litter rabbits and sing of the wonders of new life. During this aria, the montages of dancing children surrounding in a nostalgia-inducing though clearly impermanent aesthetic of a 90’s-style children’s television program resonated deeply.
The opera takes a turn at this mid-point from the drama surrounding medical practicalities to civic and political concerns that have also foregrounded as critical conversations in just the past few months. It is incredible how production and performance on an operatic scale can allow for such timeliness. The material in the midportion of the opera confronts ongoing American conversations about civic and professional discrimination, and personal struggles with classed identity: matters that all seem to have been sharply aggravated during the pandemic, as the virus takes its toll across the entire population and still, equity seems just as absent. Although these themes seem baldly experienced in the 5th scene (At Alice’s Desk) while the hospital workers vent their struggles and anxieties, they are re-stated more conceptually and intimately by the White Rabbit and Alice throughout the entire second half.
The voices of these unresolved conversations are paralleled by Alice’s more personally sensitive struggle with accusation, guilt, and forgiveness of herself and others as she learns the truth about her father that has long been hidden from her while her mother’s life is rapidly slipping away. By the end of the act, the action turns again, penetrating more deeply and emotionally still into the meta-narrative rabbit hole. By the end of the show, the overarching theme of loss: death, grief, atonement, and acceptance festoon the complexities of this virtual world. The emanations come subtly at first, but by opera’s end, Cerise Lim Jacobs’s libretto has achieved no little poignance.
The “pit” consisted a string trio from the Victory Players: violinist Elly Toyoda, cellist Clare Monfredo, and violist Adam Paul Cordle. The uncompromised complexity and effectiveness of their contribution testifies both to both the resourcefulness of the composer and the stamina and talent of the players. The most prevalent textures combined minimalist-style ostinato and tracking of the vocal lines in harmonized parallels, sounding rarely dissonant, but undoubtedly contemporary. The VOICES Boston Children’s Chorus contributed variously, sometimes more entwined with the texture of the instrumentalists, others in more dramatic prominence with discernible lyrics. The sound of children seemed perfectly suited for this operatic exploration of life, death, and learning. I can only imagine the technological feats this participation required.
Each scene/aria featured a perpetual rhythmic groove probably necessitated by the corporeal separation of the performers. This enabled a graceful navigation of the challenges that surround synchronizing sounds over the internet, though I did feel that score was losing some of its initial freshness by the end of the hour. As artists continue to explore the potentials of virtual performance spaces, it seems ensuring variety should be a priority, as they navigate each technological obstacle.
The final sequence in the animated rabbit hole wraps all the mangled emotions and swirling themes together into a culminatiing ensemble scene, linking pandemic and politics, fulfilling narrative uncertainties, and releasing a tidal-wave of dramatic emotion in a fully animated avatar ghost-world. Alice doesn’t know what is real, what is dream, what is the rabbit’s hole, what is the world, and, as I gaze still into my computer screen, neither do I anymore. But as the opera concludes in animated candlelight testimony, we look ahead with Alice — through tears — in hope.
Does opera still have a place in this age of live-stream concertizing? White Snake’s bold stride posits a new standard that is undeniably contemporary, accessible, immersive, and relevant. After an initial note of excitement and awe, the side-bar chat feature, an element of livestream shows that I have come to appreciate for its capacity to deliver a sensation of mutual participation in a temporally-dependent behavior, to provide a genuine sensation of ‘live’ performance, revealed how this performance struck at the hearts of the audience. Tears were shed, something artistic, something very real happened this weekend. I am sure this example will inspire much artistic bravery throughout the opera community and beyond.
The run ends on Tuesday. Click HERE for tickets.