After eight years, Unsuk Chin’s first opera, Alice in Wonderland, finally made its West Coast debut. Originally planned as a Los Angeles Opera commission to be conducted by Kent Nagano, Alice had to be relocated to Munich as a result of the Great Recession and Chin, a highly regarded composer, had a much-anticipated operatic debut there. It is therefore somewhat remarkable that it took this long for the work to find its way to Los Angeles for a scant two performances. Sometimes there’s a detour down the rabbit hole. And like Alice’s adventures there, the operatic journey itself is often times indescribable. One thing is certain, however: this is no Disney movie.

Jane Henschel (Queen of Hearts) © Mathew Imaging
Jane Henschel (Queen of Hearts)
© Mathew Imaging

Chin’s Alice in Wonderland is a dark, at times frightening landscape. Born in Korea, the composer tells of not encountering Lewis Carroll’s tale until she was an adult, free from many of the Western disambiguations, and the resultant work proves this. While Chin and her librettist David Henry Hwang used much of Carroll's text and plot, Chin notes that she was quite dissatisfied with the beginning and ending of the story and she therefore used scenarios from her own dreams to fill in the bookend scenes. Given Chin’s realization of Carroll’s “literary nonsense”, the dream-like atmosphere pervades the entire opera where scene is linked to following scene tenuously. Narrative is not paramount. Chin creates colors, atmospheres, scenes of intensity to be sure, but where terror and fear are palpable if not threatening. 

Perhaps the most impressive part of the evening was how marvelously the absurdity of Wonderland was realized on the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage. Anyone who has a familiarity with the psychedelic tale Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas will attest, the talent of Ralph Steadman is a most appropriate visual accompaniment. Steadman’s illustrations were brought to life by director Netia Jones’ company Lightmap and a massive, interactive screen was the backdrop and set of the production in addition to the visualizations of some of the more absurd fauna in Wonderland. The inventive costumes, realized by Jemima Penny, were often familiar with a deranged slant. Most absurd was the ruff belonging to the Queen of Hearts, sung fiercly by mezzo Jane Henschel, which required two attendants to make sure she didn’t maim an unsuspecting violinist.

© Mathew Imaging
© Mathew Imaging

Yet for as immersive and bizarre as Jones’ world was for Chin’s music, the latter was less forceful. There were several inventive moments, most notably the Caterpillar’s enigmatic soliloquy played humorously by bass clarinetist David Howard with words projected on the screen. And Chin gave unique sonorities to each of her characters: a scattered White Rabbit, sung by counter-tenor Andrew Watts, a Pierrot Lunaire-like Cheshire Cat, sung by soprano Marie Arnet clad in orange tabby fur, and of course a pristine coloratura for Alice, sung with remarkable assurance by Rachele Gilmore. 

Made up of seven scenes plus a finale, each was a sort of tableaux chock full of Carroll’s witty and memorable riffs on logic and mathematics. The musical material with the most momentum was in the more standard operatic conventions as in the “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Bat” trio at A Mad Tea Party, or Alice’s aria “Who in the World am I?”. Otherwise musical momentum was hard to come by. Chin, a student of Ligeti, provided sonic atmospheres, full of color, and her large orchestra with piano, harpsichord, sampler, and just about any percussion you could imagine, was stocked with effects, punctuating and mimicking. Her music was abrupt, percussive, at times Stravinsky-esque, but often searching. Even the most dynamic scenes of the piece, for instance the croquet game and the trial, seemed stuck in this dream-like world and as dangerous as a nightmare could seem, the musical rarely portended it. 

The rest of the cast were outstanding. Dietrich Henschel sang a tortured Mad Hatter whose sentence of perpetual tea was sympathetic. Jenni Bank sang the detestable Duchess with ferocity. Stephen Richardson sang the dopey King of Hearts with a booming bass voice and Christopher Lemmings was an amusing Dormouse.

Rachele Gilmore (Alice) and Christopher Lemmings (Dormouse) © Mathew Imaging
Rachele Gilmore (Alice) and Christopher Lemmings (Dormouse)
© Mathew Imaging

Conductor Susanna Mälkki led the Los Angeles Philharmonic with impressive mastery of the score. Chin’s complex music with its ever changing compound meters was ably handled by Mälkki who inspired confidence in the singers and players. The Philharmonic was characteristically game for such a foreboding adventure and managed quite well. The singers of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus were spot on vocally dramatic assets.

And when Alice’s dream had finished, it seemed that the crowd at Disney Hall itself was ready for a bit of respite. Netia Jones’ bizarre world was enveloping from even before the downbeat. In Chin’s version, it was hard to tell how Alice came out of her adventures in Wonderland. Who in the world was she? In the words of the Caterpillar “certainty is a crime” and Chin seems perfectly willing to let the listener draw his or her own conclusions. In her words, “I wanted the dream world to be the reality in my opera,” and the listener went along for a bizarre ride.

***11