Unsuk Chin’s “Alice in Wonderland”

Korean composer Unsuk Chin
ó the latest to defy the Queen of Heart’s forbidding “Off with their
heads!” “Sentence first, verdict afterwards!” ó unveiled the world premiere
of her new “Alice In Wonderland” opera as the opening production of the
Bavarian State Opera’s Festival 2007 on June 30th.

Chin’s work was originally to be premiered by the Los Angeles Opera under
Kent Nagano’s direction, but the production was not realized. So when he was
appointed as the new music director in Munich, Nagano had the rare courage to
risk opening the first festival of his tenure with the world premiere of this
unusual new work rather than a new production of an old, tried-and-true
repertoire piece. Nagano even upped the ante by bringing in other local
institutions, like the gigantic new Pinakothek der Moderne museum, to
commission and display new Alice-based art works. To see such high-level
chance-taking on the part of a conductor and a major opera house, the massive
investment of artistic and financial resources and reputations in a new work,
created an anticipation nothing short of phenomenal. A frenzy of speculation
and a palpable excitement ran throughout the world’s music aficionados. Unsuk
Chin had already made a stir, particularly when she won the richest award for
music composition, the $200,000 Grawemeyer Award, for her Violin Concerto,
inducting her into the distinguished circle of other winners of this award,
such as Witold Lutoslawski and her teacher Gyˆrgy Ligeti. Given such a
pedigree, hopes were running high that at long last we might perhaps have a
definitive operatic “Alice.” These expectations turned the June 30th premiere
into a major red-carpet event, drawing the attention of the glittering elite
of Munich and Germany, as well as of curious opera fans from all over the

Alice, the White Rabbit, Mad-Hatter, Queen of Hearts et al. have been
traipsed onto the stage almost as soon as they were created. And the torrent
of adaptations of the classic Victorian “children’s” books by Lewis Carroll,
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its sequel “Through the Looking Glass,
And What Alice Found There” has only increased since ó in every conceivable
media. Perhaps the most vibrant examples of the peculiarly British genre of
Witty/Wise Nonsense, this ripely inventive, playfully multi-leveled,
low-hanging public-domain fruit has tempted many artists (and corporations)
to bite into for inspiration. Sadly, remarkably few have done so without
falling down the rabbit hole themselves. Transforming what works so magically
well on the page is difficult.

Sitting in eager anticipation in the electric atmosphere of the Munich’s
magnificent National Theatre, one could see this would be no small offering:
the elaborate, huge battery of percussion instruments alone required the
players to spill out of the orchestra pit and into the boxes on both sides of
the stage. What was presented, however, was problematic and very dark indeed.
There seemed to be three different performances happening at the same time,
all of them at best tangential to the source material.

First, there was the expressionist/minimalist production by Achim Freyer,
which was inventive but spectacularly miscalculated. Alice’s dreaming is
nothing if not lucid. Certainly not nighttime-dungeon-dark with murky
symbolism. Set on a totally black plane tilted so nearly perpendicularly, all
the dancer-performers had to be suspended by wire or enter or leave by one of
the nine round holes in it. When there were many active at a time, the stage
began to resemble a battalion of paratroopers. Below at the front of the
stage, also black, was a wide low barrier, behind which all of the singers
were installed statically for the duration, with only their heads visible.
Regardless of roles, these singers’ heads were similarly made up to look like
cadaverous multiple Lewis Carrolls. In front of each were placed a pair of
white hands and forearms, which were gesticulating from time to time for no
apparent purpose. All of this, like the prominent death-head with insect
wings suspended over the stage for most of the show, would have better
represented world of Edward Gorey than of Lewis Carroll. Although Freyer’s
production was amazingly complex, marshalling huge forces and with several
coups de thÈatre, at best they were illustrative or momentarily surprising,
but more often irrelevant and worse ó drawing attention to itself at the
expense of the singers and the ideas of the story. Alice herself was a
rag-doll with a tutu, and who often turned around to moon the audience,
giving off more than a whiff of pederasty ó perhaps a reference to the
controversial photographs of children made by Lewis Carroll (aka Charles
Dodgson) and only discovered after his death?

Then there’s the libretto, jointly credited to David Henry Hwang and the
composer. Hwang is best known for “M. Butterfly,” but he has also provided
librettos for Philip Glass (1,000 Airplanes, The Voyage, The Sound of a
Voice), Bright Sheng (Silver River), Elton John (Aida), and Osvaldo Golijov
(Ainadamar). Although the “Alice” libretto is drawn in large part directly
from the book and strictly according to the composer’s wishes, the additions
are often unproductively obscuring. Unless you know the book well beforehand,
it is unlikely you will be able to follow the story. And compounding this
attitude, Chin had insisted on beginning and ending the libretto not with the
original, but with newly imagined “dreams.” The opening “dream” is simply
awful: An unnamed boy carrying a mummified cat while portentously intoning
“This is my fate!” Lewis Carroll always had a light tread, with layers of sly
and playful symbolism, never with a dull thud like this. The composer claimed
the purpose in inventing this opening scene was to avoid the Victorian
original. However, in doing so, she has actually pushed her work closer to a
surrealist version of that hoariest of Victorian artforms: the pompous

But the major event was the music. Composer Unsuk Chin is a significant
talent, with a sure command of color, instruments, craft and technique. Yet
in terms of style, form and drama she is still developing her skills.
Although the music is wisely varied, full and often complex, paradoxically it
feels as if many details are missing, happenstance, or that the wrong ones
have been chosen, making it heavy rather than enlivening or charming. The
music is expressionist when it desperately needs to be antic. There is a
strangely distracted and hermetic air to this score, which emphasizes an
inordinate number of near-quotations of other works. I found myself
repeatedly distracted trying to identify the allusions as they whizzed by.
This kind of compositional kleptomania would be less of a problem had not the
works alluded to been uniformly stronger than the one at hand. Or if they had
been at least apt. One principal source of allusions is Ravel’s infinitely
more witty and magical “L’Enfant et les SortilËges.” An almost direct
quotation of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” had an inserted trio section
derived from Ravel’s Piano Concert in G, complete with slapstick. The
Duchess’ “Speak roughly to your little boy, and beat him when he sneezes: He
only does it to annoy, Because he knows it teases” was underlined by a
timpani tattoo as in the opening of Salome’s dance. What does this have to do
with dropping veils? Such musical jokes as there are ó for example the
Cheshire cat’s disembodied smile as cat-like up-and-down glissandi not pinned
down to specific pitches ó frankly don’t translate well for the audience.
Not to mention the distracting memories of Ravel and Rossini.

About the performers, however, there were no reservations whatsoever. The
brave singers were heroic and uniformly magnificent, doing their dramatic
best even when, as was often the case, their parts rarely flattered their
voices or made the text manageable. Consonants following closed vowels set on
high notes sometimes tested singers’ ability to keep from choking, let alone
enunciate and project. Frequent full-voice sprechstimme and sequences of long
glissandi on syllables were wielded like gashes in the tonal fabric, clear,
effective, well-honed, but ultimately tiring when used so much.

The part of Alice was originally conceived for the phenomenally talented
helium-based Broadway life-form known as Kristen Chenoweth. But for this
premiere, Sally Matthews negotiated Alice’s very varied demands with ease,
naive ditties, coloratura hailstorms, sprechstimme and swoops, everything.
Septuagenarian Gwyneth Jones has a vibrato as wide as the moon’s orbit these
days, yet she held the stage’s focus ferociously with her Brunhilde/Lulu turn
as the Queen of Hearts. Piia Komsi triumphed in the punishingly extreme role
of the Cat. Another standout was Andrew Watts, who negotiated his largely
falsetto White Rabbit convincingly. Ditto Mad Hatter Dietrich Henschel. Guy
de Mey was suitably mousey as the Mouse, and Cynthia Jackson a commanding
Duchess. Steven Humes’ smooth bass stood him in good stead as the King of

The most successful scene, however, was without singer or orchestra: the
“Interlude 1” entirely for solo bass clarinet (Stefan Schneider), as the
audience was invited simply to read projected on the stage the words of the
hookah-smoking, mushroom-engaged caterpillar advocating the virtues of
transformation and change.

Viewing Alice as a series of strange surrealist dreams, however, largely
eviscerates the playful depths and hidden games that make the book the wonder
it is. I would suggest the composer take the caterpillar’s advice and
consider radical metamorphosis for this music: Drop Alice and map this score
onto Strindberg’s “Dream Play,” which is not just closer to her ideas and
temperament, but, startlingly, it contains nearly identical scenes as she has
interpreted them.

Unsuk Chin’s finely-detailed, wide-ranging score received a committed,
precise, fluent and beautifully played performance by Kent Nagano and the
Bavarian State Orchestra. Ditto the State Opera’s children’s and adult’s
choruses. Nagano commanded the huge forces with graceful authority, and I
cannot imagine it being better done. In the end, the audience divided
violently. The lusty, loudly sustained boo’s seemed to overwhelm the less
numerous but also sustained applause. At the end, the parquet emptied
quickly, while scattered energetic applause continued, mostly from the upper
balconies, forcing the bows to continue to a nearly empty house.

The late Gyˆrgy Ligeti is the one who suggested Chin consider “Alice” for
an opera. He had wanted to compose it himself, but correctly guessed he had
not time enough left to do so. One can only dream what that truly
extraordinary composer, capable of the full, deft range of wit and humor,
from wink, nudge, titter to belly laugh, would have done with Alice.

In my decades of Alice encounters, only one version has been a completely
unalloyed success: a “poor theater” dramatization created by AndrÈ Gregrory.
Small cast, almost no props or scenery. But what imagination! And consider
the artists who’ve tried to visualize Alice, including in the exhibitions
surrounding this production ó has anyone succeeded in displacing David
Tenniel’s 142 year-old vision of this work?

Kent Nagano and everyone at the Bavarian State Opera are to be praised for
taking such a big chance on new work. One fervently hopes this kind of
risk-taking will continue. We need new work and the excitement it brings even
when it does not live up to expectations. But perhaps the best moral comes
from the book itself: “‘Perhaps it hasn’t one,’ Alice ventured to remark.
‘Tut, tut, child,’ said the Duchess, ‘everything’s got a moral, if only you
can find it….Take care of sense, and the sounds will take care of

© 2007 Raphael Mostel

image_description=Alice in Wonderland (Photo by Wilfried Hoesl, courtesy of Die Bayerische Staatsoper)
product_title=Unsuk Chin: Alice in Wonderland
Photo by Wilfried Hoesl, courtesy of Die Bayerische Staatsoper