United States Jorge Sosa, Alice in the Pandemic: Soloists, Victory Players, VOICES Boston / Tian Hui Ng (conductor). A digital opera from White Snake Projects, Boston, streamed via Crowdcast on 25.10.2020. (RP)
Creator & librettist – Cerise Lim Jacobs
Director – Elena Araoz
Projections & lighting – Jeanette Yew
Director of CGI – Pirate Epstein
Director of innovation – Curvin Huber
Animators – Angel Ortiz, Sarith Sun, R. Cory Collins, Gage Domhoff
Audio engineer – Jon Robertson
Video engineer – Andy Carluccio
Producer – Rachel Sturm
Artistic Director, VOICES Boston – Daniel P. Ryan
Alice – Carami Hilaire
White Rabbit – Daniel Moody
Mrs. Lee/Grandma/Ice Creature/Witch/Queen of Hearts – Eve Gigliotti
As Alice tumbles down the Rabbit Hole, she hears a voice say, ‘I’ll never take breathing for granted again’. The words were spoken by a real-life essential worker, one of the countless people who have witnessed and sacrificed so much during this pandemic. It is to these heroes of today – supermarket workers, delivery people, medical personnel, transit employees, those cleaning restaurants, shops, subway cars, hospitals, and so many others who didn’t have the option of working from home or hunkering down – that Cerise Lim Jacobs’s new opera, Alice in the Pandemic, is dedicated.
Jacobs is the founder of White Snake Projects, a company that commissions, develops and produces original operas that combine the highest production values with social activism. It is dedicated to the promotion and nurturing of a 400-year-old art form by marrying it with the best of twenty-first-century technology. With Alice in the Pandemic, White Snake Projects is pushing the envelope even further in that direction by creating live digital opera: stuff that is risky and ephemeral.
Alice in the Pandemic was conceived and mounted in just six months, and technology and time limited how much is actually live. There were hopes that the orchestra would be streamed live as well, in addition to the three principals, but the production team decided that they had enough challenges to manage on their first outing. White Snake Projects intends to crack that nut by December for Sing Out Strong: Essential Voices, the third of its community-based projects which set stories to music on activist themes in order to amplify under-represented voices.
Nonetheless, it is still an amazing engineering feat to enable three singers in different locations to sing synchronously together as they interact with each other and their 3D avatars who lip sync in real time (Alice is the only character not to have one). The live streams are then coordinated with prerecorded performances by a trio from the Victory Players and the child singers of VOICES Boston, as well as the brilliant animation that makes Alice in the Pandemic zing.
The opera explores the elasticity of time, the unmooring of life, the heroism of doing one’s job and the reconciliation of mother and daughter. Alice is an ER nurse, struggling to balance her family’s needs with those of the desperately ill people in the hospital where she works. She brushes off her mother’s complaints of not feeling well, only to receive a call that she has been taken to The Fair. A quick google search reveals hundreds of hospitals with Fair in their names. Alice panics: she has been the person holding a mobile device connecting a dying person with their loved ones.
As she searches for Fair Hospital, she encounters Mr. White Rabbit while riding on the B Train to Nowhere. He is in a hurry for his wife is about to give birth to a litter of bunnies. When he finds out that Alice is a nurse, he pulls her into an ATM to take her to Mrs. White Rabbit, whom she assists in delivering 12 healthy bunnies.
Further down the Rabbit Hole, Alice find herself on a carousel at a fair. In a flashback, she sees herself as a child, with her grandmother pleading with her to apologize to her mother for screaming ‘I hate you’ at her. Alice is wracked with guilt and horrified to recall that her mother, a grocery store worker, did not have PPE. Mr. White Rabbit invites Alice into his tent to fight the virus, and there she confronts the incarnations of her mother that live in her imagination – an Ice Creature, a Witch and the Queen of Hearts. The Queen tells her the truth about her father: he was an addict whom her mother left on the day she found Alice playing with his pills.
Mr. White Rabbit opens a door to a vast cavern lit by candles, each one representing a human life. Alice finds her mother kneeling before three candles; one is burned out, another is flickering, but one is burning strong. The extinguished one is Alice’s father, but although her mother suggests the brighter one is Alice, her daughter is not so sure. Alice’s mother cuts short her daughter’s attempt to apologize for the past and sings the lullaby that she sang to her as a child.
Jorge Sosa’s music for Alice in the Pandemic captures the anxiety and fears of Alice and, indeed, all of us as we cope with loss and uncertainty in these challenging times. He also celebrates the joy of renewal in the light, effervescent music that accompanies the birth of the bunnies, and tenderness in the haunting lullaby that Alice’s mother sings. With just three instruments – violin, viola and cello – Sosa crafted a score full of complexity, nuance and beauty from churning, agitated passages to the most lyrical of melodies.
The singing was probably the easy part for this brave cast who, in addition to performing, had to master the technology on the fly. Carami Hilaire (Alice) and Eve Gigliotti (Alice’s mother was just one of the five characters that she brought to life) have powerful voices that seethed with intensity but could capture the most tender of emotions. The two women left vanity at the door as the camera zoomed in so close that only the pores in their skin could be seen.
Daniel Moody’s real-time appearance revealed a personality that appeared every bit as quixotic and charming as his avatar, and the ethereal sweetness of his singing was perfect for the rabbit who bounced through the opera. The scene where his wife gave birth to the litter of bunnies was charming and delightful. Baby bunnies hopped about the screen, while the faces of children, members of VOICES Boston, appeared in circles singing a song as cheery and bouncy as the visuals.
And it was the visuals that 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.
For the final performance of Alice in the Pandemic on 27 October 2020, click here.