United States Mary Prescott, A Survivor’s Odyssey: Soloists, The Victory Players / Tian Hui Ng (music director). White Snake Projects, Cyberspace, and viewed on 26.9.2021. (RP)
Opera Maker – Cerise Lim Jacobs
Director – Elena Araoz
Director of Innovation – Curvin Huber
Storyboard Artist – Catriona Baker
3D Animator – Paola Almonte
Projections & Broadcast Engineer – Paul Deziel
Electronic Music & Audio – Jon Robertson
Costumes – Christopher Vergara
Circe – Teresa Castillo
Penelope – Amanda Crider
Telegonus – Patrick Dailey
Helios, Odysseus – James Demler
White Snake Projects didn’t invent activist opera, but it aims high. Social activism is its raison d’être with a focus on the problems that have long plagued American society. And true to form for this technology savvy troupe, WSP didn’t miss a beat when COVID hit. It simply jettisoned the physical theater for cyberspace.
A Survivor’s Odyssey is the third opera in its Pandemic Trilogy which addresses issues that have reached the boiling point in the US over the past 18 months. Six months after lockdown, WSP looked at the lives of the pandemic’s heroes – essential workers – in Alice in the Pandemic. On the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder in May 2021, WSP focused on mass incarceration and systemic racism with Death by Life. In this final installment, WSP examines the shadow pandemic: a surge in sexual and intimate-partner violence through the lens of the women in Homer’s Odyssey.
Cerise Lim Jacobs, WSP Executive Director, is the librettist and creator of A Survivor’s Odyssey. She recasts Homer’s epic poem as a commentary on domestic violence by focusing on Penelope and Circe rather than on the exploits of Odysseus and his men on their journey home after the Trojan War. Jacobs weaves a compelling tale that alternates between ancient myth and the present-day reality of women coping with an abusive partner during lockdown.
It’s not always pretty, but then neither is Greek mythology: it is hard to think of a tale in which rape, murder, incest or pedophilia doesn’t rear its ugly head. So there is no need for anyone to get fussed over subjects that have fascinated writers since time immemorial. Frankly, I don’t remember there being a content advisory on The Odyssey when I first discovered it at a fairly tender age. Why is one necessary now?
The women are members of a self-help group. As in the poem, Circe is banished by her father Helios for killing her abusive husband. Her dilemma is how to tell Telegonus, her sixteen-year-old son, that his father wasn’t the man she murdered but rather the man who raped her. In the myth, the sex was seemingly consensual. In the opera, however, it was anything but.
The contemporary Penelope is trapped in an abusive relationship with a naval officer. As in the legend, she spends her days weaving and her nights unraveling the work she has done that day. The modern-day Penelope refuses to leave her abusive relationship; she is hoping for the return of her son, Telemachus, whom Odysseus has sent away because of a prophecy that his death will come at the hand of his son. The prediction comes to pass, but Odysseus dies at the hand of a son who was the child of rape.
With her score for A Survivor’s Odyssey, Mary Prescott achieves the illusive alchemy of creating masterful vocal lines underpinned by luminous music that conveys the same depth of emotion.
She is particularly adept at ensemble writing, as demonstrated in the duet in which Circe and Penelope reflect on how men have come to dominate the world, and how they can reclaim their lives.
Prescott’s instrumental writing is alive with vibrant rhythms and musical word painting. Penelope’s unraveling of her weaving is vividly recreated by the music that accompanies her actions. When turning Odysseus’s men into pigs, Circe is accompanied by intense swirls of sound. The oinks and grunts are a delight, while the pigs’ discovery that they have been castrated is depicted in spiky piano playing.
With the Pandemic Trilogy, WSP not only embraces technology but is inventing it. A Survivor’s Odyssey goes where opera has never gone before, where the internet is a scene partner. Singers are immersed in 3D environments that are remarkable for their realism and for the skill in which they are employed.
The spectacular settings – a field of sunflowers, a magical island, a beautiful courtyard, the arena where Telegonus slays Odysseus – never overwhelm the singers. 3D Animator Paola Almonte’s pigs almost steal the show: they clearly won the audience’s hearts judging from the online chat that accompanied the performance. There are hiccups with virtual live opera, but there are in the theater too.
Animation and videos don’t make an opera, however, and WSP gets that. An exceptional quartet of singer/actors brings the complex characters to life. The Victory Players under direction of Tian Hui Ng were equally impressive partners in the endeavor.
As Circe, Teresa Castillo captured the complexities of a woman who was not a victim but a survivor, embracing the epitaphs of witch and bitch that have been heaped upon her by men. Castillo popped out some spectacular high notes, but her duet with the sure-voiced countertenor Patrick Dailey as Telegonus in which she explains his parentage was particularly moving.
Amanda Crider created a Penelope of great complexity, capturing both the fragility of a woman who lives in constant fear of her life and the all-consuming love of a mother. As compelling a singer as she is actress, Crider sang with simplicity and style, her mezzo-soprano always pure. Bass-baritone James Demler was appropriately menacing is his dual roles as Helios and a most unheroic Odysseus.