Death by Life: White Snake Projects Amplifies Incarcerated Artists

Based on original writings by incarcerated authors and their families, Death by Life is a testament to the power of clear vision. The 90-minute live digital opera is the latest production from White Snake Projects, an activist opera company committed to transmedia work and partnerships with non-musical activist communities. Using a custom software Tutti Remote, engineers Jon Robertson and Paul Deziel mixed live feeds of four singers located in California, Nebraska, Illinois, and New York and integrated Unreal Engine’s 3D environments into a live YouTube stream. At the May 20, 2021 premiere, singers Aaron Blake, Lucia Bradford, Nicholas Davis, and Tiana Sorenson were impressively synced, tuned, and compelling.

Composers Leila Adu-Gilmore, David Sanford, Jacinth Greywoode, Jonathan Bailey Holland, and Mary D. Watkins each score a different scene, and although there are fragments of many global styles, the music is unified by standard operatic singing and the Victory Players’ Pierrot instrumentation. The score avoids both catchy tunes and extended techniques, opting instead for textual and dramatic clarity with musical atmospheres that augment the virtual sets. Throughout Death by Life, the piano is relentless and foreboding in the bass; winds wordpaint surges of anxiety and terror, exposing the characters’ inner worlds and contrasting with rigid external forces. Guard keys jangle and cell doors slam as percussive elements; sirens sometimes tyrannize the texture.

Lucia Bradford and Nicholas Davis in Death by Life--Photo by White Snake Projects

Lucia Bradford and Nicholas Davis in Death by Life–Photo by White Snake Projects

“We Are Brilliant” opens the piece asserting that incarcerated people are creative in confronting their situation. The choral theme features Naomi Wilson, who spent 37 years in prison and now works as a Pennsylvania commutation specialist and artistic consultant for the prison arts program Shining Light. Wilson sings “We Are Brilliant” with sublime energy, eliciting echoes from the choir as her soloist video overlays hand-drawn outlines of a prison complex. Throughout the opera, these dark drawings become increasingly bright and hopeful.

It’s this affirmation of the human spirit that connects the five individual stories. Each scene reveals the experience of incarceration and the long reach of systemic injustice. Cerise Lim Jacobs, White Snake Projects founder, worked with the Human Rights Lab at the Pozen Center to carefully curate original writings into a libretto. Monica Crosby wrote on relationships formed or lost through incarceration in “Returning Home” (music by Leila Adu-Gilmore). In “Orange Crush” by Phil Hartsfield (music by David Sanford), two Illinois cellmates anticipate routine brutality from the terrorizing tac team that dons riot gear. Joe Dole wrote a fantastical and unexpectedly funny “Yard Scene with the Animals” between an incarcerated man and a bird family, for which Jacinth Greywoode composed a standout coloratura birdsong aria.

Tiana Sorenson in Death by Life--Photo by White Snake Projects

Tiana Sorenson in Death by Life–Photo by White Snake Projects

A man overcomes hatred in “When the Time Hits You” by Andrew Phillips (music by Jonathan Bailey Holland). There are unbelievably poignant duet moments between characters and performers separated by time, space, or bars. Lucia Bradford and Tiana Sorenson sing lyrically as present and past selves; Aaron Blake and Nick Davis balance rich timbre with “shit, shit, shit” honesty. The final scene, “I’m A Lifer” by Mary L. Johnson (music by Mary D. Watkins), extends the opera toward the audience as a mother fights against police brutality and racial profiling in an effort to make lasting change.

There may be no better medium than opera to present these stories. No mythical gods or exaggerated madness is needed: reality is enough. In Death by Life, lived experience is the guide, with the intention to look beyond obvious horror to highlight the human spirit. The digital medium creates a container to elevate original stories, avoid melodrama, and advance a nuanced artistic vision. And while not all works grappling with hard topics can guide an audience beyond awareness, White Snake Projects is able to encourage and support a range of responses. The program booklet and website offer robust profiles of all collaborators, and White Snake arts administrator Sarah Rogers did a wonderful job of moderating the chat and providing further activism resources. 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.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

A gift to ACF helps support the work of ICIYL. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or