The Power of the Legend

by Briana Johnson on August 9, 2021

This is a guest post by Liang Luo, author of The Global White Snake. She is Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Kentucky. Follow Liang on Twitter, @liangluo. This volume is available for purchase in hardcover and paperback, as well as accessible ebook formats. 

When I started researching the Chinese White Snake legend from hundreds of years ago and attempted to map out its modern and contemporary travels in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and English-speaking worlds in The Global White Snake, I could not have imagined myself writing about minority activism and responses to COVID-19 in the contemporary United States. There is a long oral tradition and written record of the White Snake legend—about a snake who cultivated herself for hundreds, if not thousands, of years to attain the form of a beautiful woman. As a woman, her “original sin” is being a snake. Living as a resident “alien” in the “Human Realm,” the White Snake has always been treated with suspicion, fear, exclusion, and violent suppression. The White Snake is an immigrant to the human world, whose serpentine identity makes her a “resident alien,” the legal category given to immigrants in the United States before they receive their “Green Card” to become a “permanent resident.” The implications of being a snake woman in the human world took on new meanings when the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the existing xenophobia, fear, and suspicion toward minority populations, in the United States and throughout the world.

As an example of the power of the legend in inspiring activist projects, I will discuss the digital operas from White Snake Projects, an Asian American activist opera company based in Boston. I first encountered Cerise Lim Jacobs, and what came to be the White Snake Projects, through the Madame White Snake opera, which premiered in Boston in 2010 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2011. Conceived by Jacobs, a Singaporean Chinese American, the opera was composed by the Chinese American composer Zhou Long at Jacobs’s invitation, based on an English libretto written by Jacobs herself.  

Chapter seven of The Global White Snake features this anglophone Madame White Snake opera with two other White Snake-inspired anglophone projects, attesting to the power of legend in inspiring art and activism in contemporary times. The opera opens with a half-woman, half-snake figure in the debris of a great flood and ends with another great flood, initiated by another snake woman, with its destruction of human lives. Western audiences would likely find these apocalyptic scenes readily identifiable, drawing parallels from such cultural resources as the Bible. As the conflict between Madame White Snake and the Buddhist Abbot Fahai over her lover, the mortal human male Xu Xian, intensifies, the opera invokes a series of universal dilemmas, asking the audience to choose between righteousness and truth (Abbot Fahai) or love and freedom (White Snake). The war between the good values leads to evil, as the flood devours the onlookers, many of them innocent children, who are often casualties of war in real life.

It is helpful to consider the multicultural and multilingual background of the creators of the opera in a broad inter-Asian context historically, as well as through their shared minority perspectives in their American context at our present moment. Jacobs forcefully articulates the attraction of the legend, whole-heartedly identifying with the White Snake as “a complete outsider” who, uprooted from her cultural background, had to struggle as “a woman, a ‘yellow-skinned’ minority, an immigrant from outside” in a new environment for survival and success (Fang Bo, “An Interview with Cerise Lim Jacobs on Madame White Snake,” Geju, 2019/4, 56). Following the critical success of the opera, Jacobs went on to establish an IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access) opera foundation and the White Snake Projects opera company, with the express purpose of helping minority composers and librettists break into mainstream American venues.

The COVID-19 pandemic posed a unique challenge to the performance companies. White Snake Projects confronted these challenges head-on and used Jacobs’s vision of activism as the direction in which online events have been organized. These events include a sequence of community-based programs responding to issues relevant to immigration, colonization, and the pandemic conditions, forming the Sing Out Strong (SOS) series; as well as a fully-fledged digital opera, Alice in the Pandemic, centering the essential workers in the current pandemic. 

The Sing Out Strong (SOS) series was launched by the White Snake Projects in 2019 as a multi-year community-based project to commission composers and writers to create songs based on themes relevant to White Snake Projects’ mainstage operas. In late May 2020, while revising The Global White Snake manuscript for publication, I was part of an active online audience for “Sing Out Strong: Decolonized Voices,” which live-streamed short operatic performances based on poems written by immigrant high school students in the Boston area. Hearing librettos adapted from poems written by immigrant children writing in their second or third language, English, was a truly empowering experience for all involved. This experience not only inspired me to better articulate the power of the Chinese legend in the contemporary United States, but also pushed me to revisit earlier chapters of The Global White Snake to further articulate the power of the legend in different time periods and linguistic and cultural contexts.  

In early August 2020, White Snake Projects featured Dreamers, or DACA recipients, in a related online event, “Immigration, Dreaming of a Real Future.” This project grew out of White Snake Projects’ response to President Trump’s proposal to phase out DACA to become the fully-fledged opera I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams, premiering in Boston in September 2019 before the pandemic. Created by Jacobs and composed by Mexican-born composer Jorge Sosa, the opera features two immigrant women, Rosa, from Mexico, and Singa, an ethnic Chinese woman from Indonesia. Both came to the United States at age ten but then led divergent lives: Rosa is an undocumented immigrant and Singa has a Green Card. Singa meets Rosa as her public defense lawyer and is appalled at the way Rosa and other immigrants like her had to live in such fear every day. She realized her socio-economic class enabled her family to purchase education, lawyers, and a Green Card. With different struggles and shared dreams, they both become part of the American journey.

On December 19, 2020, I participated in yet another important event from the SOS series: “Sing Out Strong: Essential Voices.” To understand this event, we need to go back in time, to the world premiere of White Snake Projects’ first digital live opera, Alice in the Pandemic, via Crowdcast in late October 2020. Here again, Cerise Lim Jacobs takes a White Snake-inspired, woman-centered approach to interrogate minority identities and explore pressing social issues, such as systematic racism, mental health crisis, and the opioid epidemic, in the current pandemic. The opera was again composed by Jorge Sosa and based on Jacobs’s libretto, which was largely based on interviews with essential workers. It features Alice, a nurse working at the frontlines of the pandemic, expressively played by lyrico spinto soprano Carami Hilaire, who must navigate the insane world of the COVID-19 pandemic and locate her mother currently hospitalized at “The Fair,” according to a cryptic message she received by phone from a paramedic.

As an ER nurse, Alice already struggles physically and mentally in the world of the COVID-19 pandemic. As she attempts to physically locate her dying mother and to psychologically reconcile with her, like Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, she takes a deep dive down the rabbit hole into the elasticity of time. Alice follows Mr. White Rabbit, sung beautifully by countertenor Daniel Moody, to deliver a dozen rabbit babies in the rabbit hole on her way in search of her mother. She suffers a panic attack and is burdened with guilt. She agonizes over the fact that her mother, a grocer, does not have personal protective equipment. Mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti charmingly delivers the roles of Mother, Grandma, and the three incarnations of Alice’s mother (Ice Creature, Witch, and Queen of Hearts). The Ice Creature and Witch soon disappear, and the Queen tells Alice the truth about her father’s addiction and why her mother left him. Alice had always blamed her mother for chasing away her father, only now she discovered that her father was an addict and her mother once caught her playing with his pills, forcing Alice’s mother to leave him.

Using CGI animation, real-time facial motion capture, and a plug-in that enables synchronous singing from remote singers, the video game–like animation features 3D avatars of the three main characters (Alice, Rabbit, Mother) who lip-sync in real-time to live performances from the singers, each singing from the safety of their own locations. In Jacobs’s words, “Alice in the Pandemic” is “a cathartic response to the separation, dislocation, and isolation we all feel today and an acknowledgement of the sacrifice our medical heroes make every day as they put their mission to save lives before themselves” (“Alice in the Pandemic Inspiration”). Watching this experimental digital opera in my sitting room, more than half a year into the pandemic and during my self-imposed semi-quarantine, I was further inspired to connect my research on the power of the avant-garde in inspiring popular, activist projects in my first book with the one I was currently revising.

The lasting impact of White Snake Projects’ pioneering efforts at producing and delivering live digital performances is yet to be seen. We do know that this performance has been acquired by the Library of Congress for its Performing Arts COVID-19 Response Collection. Judging by what was envisioned in the program book of “Alice in the Pandemic,” at least one digital opera will be streamed live from White Snake Projects even when in-person performances will be possible again, making opera more accessible to audiences worldwide. 

The December 2020 performance of “Sing Out Strong: Essential Voices” was thus a continuation and more direct documentation of the sentiments expressed in Alice in the Pandemic, foregrounding interviews from essential workers. In addition, White Snake Projects’ Death by Life, a virtual opera exploring the intersection of systemic racism and mass incarceration triggered by George Floyd’s death, opened in May 2021; and a new virtual opera, A Survivor’s Odyssey, exploring the “shadow pandemic,” the surge in intimate partner violence during pandemic times, is scheduled to open in September 2021. 

My participant observation of the SOS series and mainstage productions from the White Snake Projects was at the same time the process of revising The Global White Snake with renewed appreciation of the power of the legend. The White Snake Projects’ pedagogical function of outreach to the community and articulating minority voices also became increasingly clear to me, as free access to all their programs are provided to those who cannot afford it, anywhere in the world. Although many of these new developments are beyond the scope of The Global White Snake, they have powerfully influenced the final shape of the book and forcefully illustrate one of its central themes, that is, the regenerative power of the legend lives on and will continue to inspire activist projects in the years to come. 

A year and a half into the pandemic, The Global White Snake is finally here. I hope its message resonates with the reader’s own experiences as well. As for myself, I will continue exploring the power of narrative and performance in my next project on the relationship between the international avant-garde and modern China, featuring the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens and the African American artist and activist Paul Robeson. I will be based in China and the Netherlands for this project for my sabbatical year, and hopefully, one day, will have another opportunity to write a blog entry introducing it.

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