Boston-based White Snake Projects has mounted operatic world premieres each fall since 2016, engaging different composers to bring original stories by founder-librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs to the stage. Until this point, Jacobs has leaned into a more-is-more mentality in everything she touches; past White Snake productions are characterized by large ensemble casts, elaborate sets and multimedia trimmings, and sprawling, often-awkward plots where human characters sing side by side with gods and angels.
This year’s White Snake event, “I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams,” departs from that trend. Friday evening, the Robert J. Orchard Stage at the Emerson Paramount Center held only three principal singers (all playing humans), the Boston Children’s Chorus, and Zane Pihlström’s striking, simple set. Jacobs’s collaboration with Mexican-born composer Jorge Sosa might be White Snake’s least logistically complex affair to date. It’s also the best.
“Dreamer” was a late addition to White Snake’s schedule, which lawyer-turned-impresario Jacobs plans years in advance. Sosa was originally commissioned for a different opera, but after President Trump announced plans to eliminate DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in 2017, Jacobs and Sosa began work on “Dreamer,” which unpacks immigrant stereotypes through the stories of two women.
Rosa, an undocumented Mexican small business owner and activist, is jailed for a crime she didn’t commit and threatened with deportation. Singa, her court-appointed attorney, is a green card-holding ethnic Chinese woman from Indonesia. Both came to the United States as young children, fleeing violence in their home countries, but their respective races and economic backgrounds shaped their lives in the States differently.
Jacobs’s libretto is thankfully short on the aubergine prose that colored years past. Sosa’s music, conducted by Maria Sensi Sellner, flowed naturally with the rhythms of speech; in one gorgeous duet early in the opera, the two main characters reminisce on the divergent lessons their mothers gave them about how to behave in their new country. The cast was — as per usual for White Snake — top-notch.
As Rosa, mezzo-soprano Carla López-Speziale spent most of the opera confined to a small raised square representing her prison cell, and she owned every inch. With immaculate coloratura chops and nuanced acting, soprano Helen Zhibing Huang illustrated Singa’s transformation from American Dream almost-believer to awakened ally. Soprano Kirsten Chambers covered all the other adult roles with chameleonic style.
The Boston Children’s Chorus was well utilized in both the score and staging; seated at cafeteria tables in shadow, the kids provided a chilling ripped-from-the-headlines backdrop during scenes at the jail. As Child Rosa and Singa, chorus members Isis Contreras Perez and Amy Li carried plaintive tunes with adult poise.
“Dreamer” does have its flaws. When the libretto dispenses with all subtlety, it feels longer than its roughly 80 minutes. One recurring sentimental music-box melody grew stale quickly. The final sequence, in which Singa takes Rosa’s daughter into her care and the chorus triumphantly intones that bland melody, could have been excised entirely.
That aside, “Dreamer” is worth seeing, and the prologue of three songs by immigrant composers and poets is an added bonus. Unfortunately, those who most need to see “Dreamer” probably won’t.
I AM A DREAMER WHO NO LONGER DREAMS
Presented by White Snake Projects. At Emerson Paramount Center, Robert J. Orchard Stage, Sept. 20. Repeats Sept. 22. www.whitesnakeprojects.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.