IN: Reviews

You Thought This Virus Was Novel?

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Waskally wabbit? (Curvin Huber photo)

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.

Eric Hollander is a PhD candidate in Musicology at Brandeis University. His research is focused on musical realizations of poetic texts and oral traditions.

3 Comments »

3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Good Review. I had bought a ticket for Tuesday about two hours before reading it. The review confirmed that I should see Alice. Getting it to come through on my computer will be a challenge–but thanks to this review I now know I MUST see Alice–and that is the essence of a great review in telling the reader who he needs to see and hear.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — October 26, 2020 at 8:02 pm

  2. I just don’t get this review. The first paragraphs sound like parody to me, but then it becomes clear this person is serious.

    At 54 am I really such a grumpy old man? I guess so, but there are a few sentences that suggest to me that Mr. Hollander and I would never have agreed on anything:

    “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.”

    A) that’s not a sentence. B) “nostalgia inducing though clearly impermanent aesthetic…” “though” doesn’t make any sense there. C) children’s television program “resonated deeply” really?

    “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.” And all in less than an hour!

    Part of me feels like I should take responsibility for all of this bile, but unlike Mr. Hollander, who celebrates the distraction of sidebar filled with a constant stream of fawning and self-justifying comments I am not sure I want to plunge into arguments with people who can handle this stuff. Also, I quit halfway through, which means maybe somehow all this crap really did come to some apotheosis at the end, if only I had waited…

    Here are notes to myself while watching

    OK, this isn’t quite as horrible as the site led me to think. They do seem to have figured out how to get independent sound to mix together, but the video is pretty loosely synced – sometimes just a little off, sometimes a real Singing in the Rain mess. My guess is that they are all performing against a common but potentially unsynched click track that get synced before it is mixed and sent out the wire, and the video is an afterthought.

    The music so far is a kind of anonymous mostly American-sounding piece, I could imagine this going out on something like Playhouse 90 in the 50s, sound wise (but not storywise, which is a specific pandemic story “ripped from the headlines!”). The story is about a daughter whose mother suddenly goes to the hospital with Covid but can’t be found. The word setting is weird with strange emphases and a loose libretto (including a very long stretch where the daughter goes looking for ibuprofen (misspelled in the captions, BTW) in her purse). I’m about 20 minutes in and there are only two significant singing parts so far – the daughter, and a counter-tenor voicing the Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland on t T (oh, now they’re in some cityscape). Not clear on why the rabbit is there, I’m not paying very close attention. The rabbit scenes occur in a 3D rendered space that reminds one of Myst, maybe – pretty clunky – and the singers live in their little boxes off to the side:

    It’s not good. It’s not quite bad enough to enjoy demolishing.

    But wait, maybe it is. Here’s some terrible, terrible writing. I think it’s supposed to be celebrating all these little rabbits dancing around on my screen, but I’m not sure why they’re there.

    “They are so alive
    Give me a high five.
    We were born to laugh
    to sing and dance.
    We bring joy to all
    as around we prance.
    We are eating and drinking
    Peeing and pooing
    We are so alive.
    etc.”

    Not making that up. The bathroom stuff is ridiculous, but it’s the awkward “prance” rhyme that really offends me.

    And just to show that this is really serious about the pandemic, we get this next. If it were any more on the nose I’d sneeze it out:

    “I’m working stressful shifts covered in PPE
    resulting in extreme headaches, facial pain and dehydration.” (doesn’t sound any better sung…)

    “The often ask if they are going to die
    I tell them that we’re trying our absolute best to send them home to their loved ones.”

    Need social commentary?

    “On the floor there is no question about the disparities.
    I did not see a Caucasian patient all night.”

    But that’s as much of my life as I want to spend on this. Off to my TV to cheer Mookie Betts on in what I hope is the last game of the World Series.

    Oh, and now we learn that our nurse (named Alice, of course) and her mother have some deep buried anger that they will have to work out. Bleh.

    Really quitting it now.

    Comment by anonono — November 1, 2020 at 5:35 pm

  3. Oh, are they playing now in the Woke World Series? OK, so the modern generation aren’t taught to write well like those of us who saw Sarah Caldwell in her prime; so I’m 68. One difficulty with commenting here is the inability to edit without causing major disruptions to the flow of words; I suppose it’s like tempura and freso or other artistic media wherein artists have only minutes to work. A few months ago I worked on a review which took too long. Yes, reviews exist to “suggest” to people what they should see; but they also effectively exist to further performers’ careers. No, I don’t mean a claque, but performers, stage managers, lighting designers live and die on performance reviews. That’s why such gets discussed even tho’ effective artwork doesn’t call attention to itself but rather conveys what needs conveyed. I too would like to break off–and then return to the problems of Alice and whether Cerise is becoming our Florence Foster Jenkins. Last bit before breaking, that side “bar” allowed commenting; some of us weren’t “fawning” self-congratulators. Also, you did quit too soon; I can count on the fingers of one hand with finger left over performances I left BEFORE they finished,

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — November 2, 2020 at 12:16 am

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