Arisa White’s Powerful New Opera

Humanities7 MIN READ

The associate professor of English previews her work-in-progress in preparation for its premiere at the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts in 2025

Jeannine Anderson performs during Post Pardon: The Opera, a work-in-progress staged at the Greene Block + Studios in Waterville. Based on a book of poems by Associate Professor of English Arisa White, the opera draws on African-diasporic spirituality and folklore to tell the story of Willow, a queer activist confronted with the ghost of her estranged mother who committed murder-suicide.
By Bob KeyesPhotography by Gabe Souza
July 13, 2023

Other than when she played the clarinet in sixth grade, Associate Professor of English Arisa White had no background in music. But that didn’t stop her from writing the libretto for a bold new opera that explores mental health, post-partum homicide and suicide, and Afro-Indigenous herbalism.

She trusted her instincts, followed her intuition, and surrounded herself with a creative team to help her navigate an unfamiliar musical landscape. 

The result is Post Pardon: The Opera, a work-in-progress that White and her co-creators presented in late June at the Greene Block + Studios in downtown Waterville. With financial support from Colby, White will continue to work on the opera over the next academic year and premiere the finished piece in spring 2025 at the soon-to-open Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts.

She described the creative process “as a spiritual imperative. It feels creative, but at the same time, it feels like something is leading me through this process of creation. It is very powerful.”

White, who joined Colby in 2018 and has written several books of poetry, adapted the opera from her chapbook inspired by the tragically true story of poet Reetika Vazirani, who killed her 2-year-old son and then took her own life. White had met Vazirani and her son a few weeks before the tragedy, and she wrote her poems in response.

With the support she received from Colby’s Haynesville Project as a newly tenured member of the faculty, White has been able to envision the multidisciplinary piece through to its finished form. The recent public performance of the work-in-progress at the Greene Block + Studios was part of that process.

Arisa White, associate professor of English and librettist for Post Pardon: The Opera, looks on during a performance at the Greene Block + Studios. With support she received from Colby’s Haynesville Project as a newly tenured member of the faculty, White has been able to envision the multidisciplinary project through to its finished form.

Over two weeks, White convened two dozen artists—singers, musicians, dancers, designers—from Colby and across the country to rehearse, revise, and further develop the opera. Based on feedback from the artists and members of the audience who witnessed the performance, White will continue refining the piece.

“We are working our way through it, getting a sense of the music and the emotionality of the lyrics, and making sure it all fits together,” White said early during the workshop process.

As she spoke, four singers sat in chairs in a semicircle on the first floor of the Greene Block, facing music stands. Composer Jessica Jones was nearby at her piano bench, leading the vocalists through the opera’s first movement, as Director Ellen Sebastian Chang observed and scribbled notes on a pad of paper.

Musicians, dancers, and designers filtered in and out in preparation of joining the singers. Throughout the rehearsal, Jones’s assistant, Nessa Sammuel, a violinist from Lewiston High School in Maine, presented her and the others with updated sheet music reflecting recent changes to the libretto and score.

The incubation period enabled White and her team to infuse the work with a deeper sense of humanity and personality.

“We are in the room together, looking in each other’s eyes and hearing each other’s voices,” said Chang, who lives in Portland, Ore., and has known White since 2007 when White lived on the West Coast and worked for the Margaret Jenkins Dance Co. The two have been collaborating on the project since White expressed a desire to take the work from poetry on the page to music and drama on the stage.

“I am very interested in Arisa’s work and in Arisa’s writing,” Chang said. “And I was always taken with Arisa’s presence. That curiosity remains.”

Ellen Sebastian Chang, director of Post Pardon: The Opera, speaks prior to a showing of the opera’s work-in-progress.

At first, she questioned if opera was the proper format for this work, which, because of the subject, is emotionally charged and challenging.

“But as time has gone on, I agree wholeheartedly with Arisa that material like this requires a form with big emotions. And that is opera,” Chang said. “Opera is designed to help us navigate very large-scale emotions. Not just ideas, but emotions. Music softens the way they enter you.”

White described Post Pardon: The Opera “as an Afro-speculative transgenerational apology” with Caribbean mythologies and West African cosmologies that explore inherited sorrow. It is a form of creative activism, intended to draw “healing attention” to long-standing personal and social wounds.

Opera singers
The singers perform with passion during a work-in-progress showcase of Post Pardon: The Opera.

The opera is set between the material and spiritual worlds, where the lives of three females intersect around murder and suicide. The emotional core of the story involves a mother, named Rema, and her efforts to heal relationships with her daughters, Willow, who is alive and abandoned by her mother, and Isa, who has died.

With its roots in a Black feminist perspective, Post Pardon: The Opera explores how unresolved suffering is passed from one generation to the next and the impact of that suffering on women, Black Americans, and communities of color that have endured generational oppression.

Leading up to and during the workshop process at the Greene Block, the opera underwent a major thematic shift with Willow evolving as the opera’s heroic figure instead of Rema. “That shift has been developing over the past two months, but it has become apparent during this collaborative process.”

Since writing the poems, White imagined them as something more than printed words. Trusting her instinct as an artist, she followed her muse, which led her to opera. She took a lyric-writing class at Berklee College of Music in Boston and wrote the libretto during a sabbatical.

Colby’s imprint is all over Post Pardon: The Opera. Funding from the Haynesville Project enabled White to hire the creative team and bring the artists to Waterville. She is collaborating with the Arts Office to present the premiere at the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts as an example of original work the new center will incubate and support.

And she will bring the opera into her classroom. She will teach a Jan Plan course, Gone Mad: A Book & Printmaking Workshop, in collaboration with the Center for Book and Print, and a spring course, A Black American Opera Lab: The Poet’s Libretto. 

dancers lifting arms upward
The performance followed a two-week, intensive workshop with two dozen artists—singers, musicians, dancers, designers—from Colby and across the country convening to rehearse, revise, and further develop the opera.

Charlotte Tiencken, the opera’s general manager, is another longtime collaborator of White’s. They met when Tiencken managed Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts and White was a college intern from Sarah Lawrence College. They have remained friends, and Tiencken gladly accepted the challenge of serving as the project’s general manager.

“I love working on new work. It’s one of the most exciting and daring creative things you can do as an artist, to start from scratch and see what happens. Creating new work is the lifeblood of our culture going forward, so I was immediately interested.”

She praised Colby for investing in the work and backing White.

“We will be performing new work in a new space. I am excited that Colby has made this commitment. Not all colleges would take this kind of risk—and it is a risk. Doing new work is always risky because you just never know. So thank you to Colby for doing this.”