E. Michael Martin
E. Michael’s Legitimate Excuse
, June 2009
I have been very interested in viewing Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland ever since I read about its premier. Much of my intrigue was a vague sense of trepidation because I had just begun work on my own version of Lewis Carroll’s marvelous work. Thus, after I subscribed to Netflix, I requested the DVD.
This opera is certainly nothing like my own. Though I use many techniques that break down a sense of tonality, Unsuk Chin does not begin with by presuming tonality at all. The entire opera is atonal. Flurries of instruments and percussion give a sense of music to the work. Instrumental interludes are repetitive and dreamlike, sometimes horrific in their lack of tonal center. The vocal lines are sometimes sung, some-times spoken. Most of the time, they lie somewhere between, speaking on pitch and sliding about, abandoning vocal form.
The music does create an aura of dreaminess that permeates the entire opera. The staging takes place on a vast blank, black canvas, upon which the tale unfolds in many colorful ways. Trapdoors open and the characters appear, often at random, with nothing connecting them. The characters themselves are doll-like, with large mesh heads and yarn for hair. Clever puppetry changes the size of Alice throughout the work. These features are eye catching.
The opera, sung in English, suffers at times from incoherence. The lines are often spoken or sung too fast in too many different pitch ranges, making understanding the conversations nigh impossible without the assistance of subtitles. This issue is especially prevalent during the mad tea party scene, in which the characters are depicted with puppets with the vocalists below. The musical scheme emulates Mozartian flavor with harpsichord.
The opera is strange, and Unsuk Chin does an excellent job of keeping the audience as confused as Alice with the mix of original content with the classic text. If once can look past the phallus-shaped noses of some of the characters, and the unusual treatment of the characters, and the overall sense of confusion and dread, the opera can be an intriguing, if not enjoyable experience.