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SING OUT STRONG: INCARCERATED VOICES Announced From White Snake Projects

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Community song initiative turns to incarcerated writers, including two of the participants in recent virtual opera “Death by Life."

SING OUT STRONG: INCARCERATED VOICES Announced From White Snake Projects

Galvanized by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May of 2020, Cerise Jacobs and her activist opera company, White Snake Projects, developed the virtual opera Death by Life - exploring the intersection of systemic racism and mass incarceration with texts written by incarcerated writers and their families and a score by five Black composers - to stand as a monument of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

This month, Death by Life provides the thematic basis for Sing Out Strong: Incarcerated Voices, the fourth installment of White Snake's popular community song initiative. Two of Death by Life's seven writers, Joe Dole and Devon Terrell, are also contributing texts for Sing Out Strong, along with eight other incarcerated writers, paired with ten composers from across the spectrum of backgrounds and influences. Tickets are free, with a requested donation going to support the Justice Arts Coalition, which will also be curating artwork for each song. To register for Sing Out Strong: Incarcerated Voices, click here.

As an activist opera company, White Snake Projects establishes ties with community partners for each production, many of whom then become ongoing parts of the company's creative and activist ecosystem. For Death by Life, a key partner was Alice Kim, Director of the Human Rights Lab at the University of Chicago, who alerted the White Snake team to a trove of essays written by currently and formerly incarcerated individuals. Seven were purchased as the basis of the libretto, and Joe Dole and Devon Terrell were among those writers. Dole wrote "a fantastical and unexpectedly funny 'Yard Scene with the Animals' between an incarcerated man and a bird family" (I Care if You Listen), while Terrell wrote the poem "The Mourn," which concluded the first scene of the opera. Both Dole and Terrell are students in the Stateville Think Tank run by Alice Kim. Joining them are eight newcomers to the White Snake family: Sarah Allen, Hal Cobb, Shareaf Fleming, Terry Hedin, Jevon Jackson, W. M. Peeples, Dana P. R. Schultze, and James Soto. The roster includes numerous prizewinners of the PEN America Prison Writing Contest as well as members of the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP), an initiative of Northwestern University to provide a high-quality liberal arts education to incarcerated students in Illinois.

Selected to be paired with these writers are ten composers representing a diverse range of ages, backgrounds and ethnicities: Adore Alexander, Andrew Amendola, Jake Berran, Andrew Conklin, Sarah Taylor Ellis, Patricio Molina, Johanny Navarro, Iván Enrique Rodríguez, Del'Shawn Taylor, and SiHyun Uhm. They include a Juilliard student (Uhm), an ASCAP Leonard Bernstein Award winner (Rodríguez), an Opera America Discovery Grant winner (Ellis), an activist for arts access in marginalized communities (Taylor), a jazz guitarist (Amendola), and a former child prodigy (Molina). Their influences range from Afro-Caribbean and early twentieth-century California immigrant music to electronic music and multi-media, and they hail from Chile, Puerto Rico, Korea and all corners of the United States.

Performers for Sing Out Strong: Incarcerated Voices include soprano Sarah Rogers, a young artist at the Boston University Opera Institute and one of eight winners of the Boston University at Carnegie Hall competition; Dominican tenor José Heredia, first prize winner in the New Jersey Association of Verismo Opera's International Vocal Competition; baritone Brandon Bell, who joins Fort Worth Opera as one of their Lesley Resident Artists this season; cellist Clare Monfredo, a Fulbright Scholarship recipient who studied in Leipzig and is now pursuing her DMA on a five-year graduate fellowship at the CUNY Graduate Center; and pianist Nathan Ben-Yehuda, winner of the 2017 Yamaha Young Performing Artists award. White Snake regular Tian Hui Ng serves as Music Director.

Early in the pandemic, when White Snake Projects pivoted to move its offerings to an online format, the Boston Musical Intelligencer declared that the company had "set a new standard for online concerts in the age of pandemic." Thanks to the technical wizardry of audio engineer Jon Robertson, live synchronous performances by singers and instrumentalists in multiple locations can now be taken for granted. Writing about Death by Life, the contemporary music online hub I Care if You Listen declared that the "singers ... were impressively synced, tuned, and compelling." The same review was quick to add that much more was achieved than just technical feats: "The digital medium creates a container to elevate original stories, avoid melodrama, and advance a nuanced artistic vision. ... Death by Life's success is not just as art that transcends its impressive technology, but in the company's communal infrastructure that informs thoughtful work and builds a bridge to further action." Seen and Heard International agreed: "Death by Life is great theater with an activist edge that brings to mind Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart or Jonathan Larson's Rent. ... And, like the other two plays, Death by Life left me with tears in my eyes."


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