I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams: White Snake Projects’ Immigration Opera

The stage opens in silence to a bleak jail cell, brightly lit by abrasive fluorescents–a woman, Rosa, sitting on the austere bed with her head down. This is not just a drama about Rosa, but a storying of immigrants. On September 21, 2019, White Snake Projects’ new opera I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams explored humanity and compassion in the darkest of situations; Rosa, a Mexican born DACA recipient, and Singa, of Chinese descent who came to the United States from Indonesia, relate their families’ journeys that brought them to this fateful exchange. Composer Jorge Sosa and Creator/Librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs draw from their own personal and familial stories to evoke a raw and powerful narrative, brought to life through Elena Araoz’s insightful directorial touch.

Singa, played by Helen Zhibing Huang, visits Rosa, played by Carla López-Speziale, as a court-ordered attorney. A firefighter died battling a fire started by Alt-Right counter-protesters during a demonstration Rosa organized, leaving her liable. Jacobs’ mindful lyrics paint an intricate relationship of the characters assumptions about each other. Initially misjudging one another based on immigration status, the pair discover the commonalities between their families’ stories that led them to arrive in this jail cell together. In a dynamic exchange, Singa realizes the disparity between Rosa’s life and her life, vigorously explaining, “Our lives seem so far apart but for a Green Card,” to which Rosa asks, “Am I reduced to a piece of plastic?” Jacobs’ astute observations of the multifaceted hardships faced by “in-between people” in various immigrant populations humanizes the deeply emotional stories many have overlooked or become desensitized to in today’s culture.

Carla López-Speziale and Helen Zhibing Huang in I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams--Photo by Kathy Wittman | Ball Square Films

Carla López-Speziale and Helen Zhibing Huang in I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams–Photo by Kathy Wittman | Ball Square Films

Sosa’s composition is well-balanced to the story’s narrative, and his vocal writing aroused strong emotional peaks and valleys, magnified by the characters’ impassioned performances. Moments of distinct and simple themes are cleverly woven in, taking often recognizable melodies with specific contextual meanings, such as Bernstein’s “America” theme, and twisting them to highlight irony or other subtle emotions. Often, the recontextualization challenges the listeners’ preconceived ideas, inviting reflection on whether or not the meaning applies to all people. With such a gripping narrative, Sosa’s keen sense of pacing and space allowed the performers to be supported or bare in the most timely moments.

With such a deeply layered story and complementary music, the characters were exposed, both vocally and emotionally, which placed them in a position to make or break the performance. Immediately, López-Speziale and Huang matched Jacobs’ narrative complexity with an astonishing depth. Huang’s performance was chilling; even in the most intensely dense moments, her voice was dominant and piercing with distress. Equally as commanding, López-Speziale dark tone was matched only by the acumen she brought to her character. The two star vocalists were a sublime pairing–their duets so heavy and potent at times that they brought tears to the eyes of the audience. The technical prowess and connection to their characters’ stories were precisely what made the most of the vulnerabilities and space given in the music.

Carla López-Speziale in I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams--Photo by Kathy Wittman | Ball Square Films

Carla López-Speziale in I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams–Photo by Kathy Wittman | Ball Square Films

During flashbacks to their childhood, Jacobs’ libretto creates complex layers to the characters through their common traumas, hopes, and history. Child Rosa, played by Isis Contreras Perez, and Child Singa, played by Amy Li, delivered striking performances, even by veteran performance standards. It was hard not to feel the connection between the child and adult versions of the characters, not only through the music, but also through the understanding the children put into their characters. Their exceptional talent brought out the somber hopefulness in the past lives of our star characters through invaluable performances. Not to be outdone, Kirsten Chambers’ range as an actress gave life to numerous supporting characters, her powerful voice moving enough to elicit sympathy even for the gangster threatening the child stars. Members of the Boston Children’s Chorus delivered stellar performances, a moving and constant reminder of how the topical material for the story affects entire families.

I Am A Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams is a naked and unfiltered look at the problems facing immigrant communities in the United States that many have the privilege to ignore. In this piece, audience members cannot help but to be forced to reflect on their own complacencies. Jorge Sosa and Cerise Lim Jacobs’ collaboration was enormously successful, as their closeness to the subject matter and empathetic nature illuminated the entirety of the work. With such fiercely personal performances, one would be hard pressed to attend I Am A Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams and not feel something new for marginalized populations trying to make a better life for themselves in the United States.