Prison Life As Opera: Hard-Edged Portraits, Music Of 5 Composers

Nicholas David, Tiana Sorenson, Lucia Bradford, and Aaron Blake in the White Snake Projects’ virtual project, ‘Death by Life’ (Video images courtesy of White Snake Projects)

BOSTON – Boston-based White Snake Projects, rebranded in the past year as “an activist opera company,” premiered its latest and most ambitious virtual project, Death by Life, on May 20.

The opera’s five vignettes by five composers were created as “our response to the murder of George Floyd,” the company announced. Death by Life uses the words of incarcerated men and women for its libretto, and their stories delve perilously into life behind bars.

That an opera company would create an opera about prison in response to the murder of a Black man by a cop is a sad commentary, a sad reality, and indeed a sad opera.

Technical issues plagued the premiere. The curtain was delayed, the stream was shifted to YouTube after the original streaming platform failed, and everything was halted for 10 minutes after the first scene, during which the graphics and live video were clearly not functioning together.

Soprano Tiana Sorenson in ‘Death by Life’

The initial tech problems were mostly resolved. The actual stream, however – singers were live, remotely, in front of green screens and superimposed over rudimentary graphics – never reached any level of visual sophistication or believability.

Exploring the possibilities between the gaming world and streamed music seems fruitful, and White Snake Projects assembled a team of technicians with gaming expertise (at least according to the bios). But this collaboration needed work.

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Death by Life follows WSP productions of I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams (2019) and Alice in the Pandemic (2020), much less ambitious streams with similar values and technology.

The opera brings the texts to life with scores by five Black composers: Jacinth Greywoode, Leila Adu-Gilmore, Jonathan Bailey Holland, David Sanford, and Mary D. Watkins. Having multiple collaborators made for countless compelling moments, but they failed to cohere into any core notion. Except for the incarcerated, and the prisons they live in.

The texts gave everyone – artists and audiences – plenty to digest. They were based on essays written by incarcerated men and women.

Brief biographies seem instructive.

Joseph Dole is currently serving life without parole. A writer, artist, and activist, he has a B.A. from Northeastern Illinois University and is co-founder of Parole Illinois.

Andrew Phillips is serving 30 years for first degree robbery and murder.

Raul Dorado is an incarcerated writer and legal reform advocate. He has a B.A. in justice policy advocacy from Northeastern Illinois University and is co-founder of Parole Illinois.

Phil Hartsfield is serving a life sentence. A writer, he recently passed a review for his B.A. from Northeastern Illinois University.

Devon K. Terrell has a B.A. from Northeastern Illinois University, and focuses on poetry and art to transform youth culture.

Monica Cosby is a poet and activist, shaped by the community of artists, scholars, and mothers with whom she was incarcerated for 20 years. She leads Chicago’s Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration.

Mary L. Johnson has sought justice for more than 40 years for police torture survivors – including her son Michael, serving life — and for death row prisoners.

Eric Blackmon was wrongfully convicted of murder in 2004. He was freed from prison, largely through his own legal efforts, in May 2018.

There would be no way to summarize so many galvanizing perspectives. The words were not pretty – they were as thought-provoking as a punch in the face. Company founder Cerise Lim Jacobs is listed as librettist, and had much to work with in the ideas and experiences of these collaborators.

Nicholas Davis and Aaron Blake in a scene from ‘Death by Life’

Many talented musicians – singers, instrumentalists, composers – invested in the potential of Death by Life. A quartet of players – Elly Toyoda (violin, viola), Clare Monfredo (cello), Nathan Ben-Yehuda (piano), and Eric Schultz (clarinet); led by Tian Hui Ng –stayed intensely involved throughout.

Scores were uniformly appropriate to the settings and invite repeated and close listenings. Adu-Gilmore, Holland, Sanford, Greywoode, and Watkins are accomplished composers, and their participation alone makes Death by Life of interest.

The music saved this presentation. Text setting, instrument awareness, artistic collaboration all were evident. It’s an accomplishment when composers create an enveloping atmosphere in just a few bars and then sustain it.

The five scenes were surrounded by enigmatic Interludes, composed by Greywoode. In all of them, Naomi Wilson sang a part perfectly suited for her voice. She was helped by a less-intrusive video – mostly singing in front of 3D cloud backgrounds — and delivered her simple text as authoritative gospel. Hers is no operatic instrument but a human one of great appeal. That she served 37 years in prison, before her release in 2019, adds immeasurable impact to the performance.

Each of the other soloists sang engagingly.There is no telling what embodying a character in isolation must feel like, and the characters were never helped by the accompanying video. But along with Wilson’s generous, embracing Interludes, mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford, soprano Tiana Sorenson, tenor Aaron Blake, and baritone Nicholas Davis each brought artistry and professionalism to multiple roles.

Lucia Bradford plays the mother in ‘Death by Life’

Some settings were breathtaking (if you were taking the visuals away as well): Sorenson and Bradford as daughter (incarcerated) and mother (famous singer) in Adu-Gilmore’s buoyant score; Davis, accomplished in multiple styles with his sturdy baritone, especially with Blake, singing in Sanford’s hectic, tough-minded duet called “Orange Crush.”

Greywoode’s melodramatic scene, using a smart prison pastorale conceit written by Dole, was undermined by a poorly silhouetted singer superimposed on clunky graphics. Holland and Wilson also contributed scores of great integrity, showing the depth of the compositional insight on this team.

So many ideas were undernourished. The five scenes each felt like workshop pieces in mid-creative development. The story potentials were too rich, and the compositional voices of such quality, that 10-minute vignettes seemed insufficient for the harrowing existences being portrayed.

As for the technology: A return to live performances will simplify things. Death by Life failed visually but not sonically. The seamless streaming of remote singers and instrumentalists made this a potential success; the poorly executed and conceived graphic ideas did not.

Keith Powers covers music for Gannett New England, Leonore Overture and Musical America. Follow @PowersKeith; email to