Girls of Summer
TRISTAN KRAFT interviews composer UNSUK CHIN, whose Alice in Wonderland will have its U.S. premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
© Wilfried Hösl 2012
Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland has its U.S. premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis this month in an all-new production, with staging by OTSL artistic director James Robinson and sets by Allen Moyer. German painter/stage director/bad boy Achim Freyer was the force behind Alice's 2007 world premiere at Bayerische Staatsoper (available on video from EuroArts). "The Achim Freyer production felt irritating at the beginning," says Chin, "because Freyer completely changed the scenic indications of the libretto, and because his concept — strongly inspired by psychoanalysis — was different, even contrary to my original ideas." Indeed, Freyer's vision of the story is not your parents' Alice in Wonderland: the production calls for the type of Alice who lifts up her skirt, while meandering through a nightmarish world decorated only with ghoulish, sometimes phallic, mesh face-masks — all staged with a relentless, Brechtian "epic theater" intensity. Ultimately, though, Chin found the production "absolutely compelling and unique." After all, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland leaves ample room for interpretation, "especially as there is no clear-cut psychological narrative or moral in the book," says Chin. "But precisely this is what makes it so exciting. Carroll [predates] ideas and inventions of countless writers and philosophers such as Kafka, Wittgenstein or Beckett. Alice in Wonderland has been referred to by neuropsychologists, mathematicians, as well as by quantum physicists, and also the popular culture and film have embraced it — just think of the Wachowski brothers' Matrix film."
First-time listeners to Alice may feel the same type of bewilderment as first-time viewers of The Matrix. Seoul-born Chin and librettist/playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly, Chinglish) have deftly captured the dreamlike qualities of the story: the music shifts without warning from whimsical to serious, from peaceful to agitating. The libretto includes copious alliteration and non sequiturs. One could compare Chin's sound to that of György Ligeti (with whom she studied) and Thomas Adès, but the textures she creates are all her own. Inspired, tuneful string writing drives most of the opera. For the hookah-smoking Caterpillar's music, it sounds as if Chin had extrapolated the opening bars of Rhapsody in Blue. Moments such as the aria "Sleep tight, my ugly baby" sound beautiful, once you allow yourself to calm down from the music preceding it. "In the scene containing the Mad Hatter's riddle, I play with musical riddles all the way from the Baroque to Schoenberg," says Chin. "Another example — in the Queen of Hearts's entrance scene, the music [parodies] the entrance of Turandot."
Chin and Hwang slightly modified the beginning and ending of the Alice story, to keep the action contained within her dream-state. The OTSL mounting of the opera features Michael Christie's conducting, Seán Curran's choreography, Ashley Emerson as Alice, Tracy Dahl as the Cheshire Cat and Aubrey Allicock as the Mad Hatter. Asked about the opera's suitability for children, Chin says, "The piece itself has certainly not been composed as a children's opera, but I don't see any reason why children shouldn't be exposed to it."