Alice in Wonderland by Unsuk Chin

Korean composer Unsuk Chin‘s opera based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was premiered on 30 June at the Munich festival and has been favourably reviewed in the Guardian and the Los Angeles Times.

The Mad Tea Party

More information, including a photogallery and a video, is available at the Bayerische Staatsoper site.

Parts of the opera were previewed during the 2005 Proms under the title snagS and Snarls and broadcast by BBC Radio 4.

Here is Chin’s own program note:

1 Alice Acrostic
2 Who in the world am I?
3 The Tale-Tail of the Mouse
4 Twinkle, twinkle, little star
5 Speak roughly to your little boy

snagS & Snarls was commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera and is a kind of sketch for the opera Alice in Wonderland, also for the Los Angeles Opera. With the exception of the first piece, its movements are based on scenes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

1 Alice Acrostic
Lewis Carroll wrote this poem as a conclusion for his two Alice stories. It is an acrostic in which, reading down, the first letters of each line spell out the name Alice Pleasance Liddell, the girl who inspired the Alice stories. In this poem Carroll recalls, nine years after the event, the boating trip on the River Thames on 4 July 1862, during which he made up and first told some of the Alice adventures to the three Liddell sisters. In the last line of this acrostic, ‘Life, what is it but a dream?’, Carroll was probably making reference to the anonymous canon that even then was popular in England:

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream –
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.

2 Who in the world am I?
The text is taken from the chapter ‘The Pool of Tears’, in which Alice has an existential crisis arising from finding herself in a world in which another kind of logic appears to rule. It contains the poem ‘How doth the little crocodile’, which is a parody of a well-known English pious poem of the 18th century.

3 The Tale-Tail of the Mouse
A picture-poem from the chapter ‘A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale’

‘Mine is a long and sad tale,’ said the Mouse, turning to Alice; and sighing. ‘It is a long tail, certainly,’ said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail … And she kept on puzzling about it while the Mouse was speaking, so that her idea of the tale was something like this …

The music reflects the picture-poem. The phrases begin loudly and become softer and softer; the instruments move upwards quickly: the notes on the pages thereby take on the appearance of a mouse’s tail.

4 Twinkle, twinkle, little star
The punning text is a series of variations upon the Mad Hatter’s song ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little bat’, from the chapter ‘A Mad Tea-Party’. This text is in turn a parody of the poem ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ by Ann and Jane Taylor. (The Carroll expert Martin Gardner has noted that Carroll was probably making another joke since ‘bat’ was what one well-known mathematics professor of Carroll’s acquaintance was called by his students.) The people and animals alluded to in the text, including Bill, Pat, and Ed, appear elsewhere in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

5 Speak roughly to your little boy
This scene is based on the chapter ‘Pig and Pepper’ and takes place in the Duchess’s kitchen, where the Duchess sings a grotesque lullaby to a baby who is later transformed into a pig. In the midst of it, the cook throws cooking pots and other kitchen utensils at the Duchess and others present, which is represented musically by an expanded percussion section that includes wineglasses, cutlery and cooking pots.

According to the author Martin Gardner, the text ‘Speak roughly to your little boy’ parodies a nowforgotten English religious instructional poem, ‘Speak gently!’, that was written by one of Carroll’s contemporaries. In addition I have inserted texts from Carroll’s stage version of Alice, which give the scene a ritualistic quality.

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1 Response to Alice in Wonderland by Unsuk Chin

  1. Dresdengirl says:

    This is not the first opera of Alice. Interesting that the character splits, and the voicing seem similar (I noted a counter tenor as the White rabbit)

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