TIO Boston: Librettist Cerise Jacobs & REV 23, 9/29-10/1
White Snake Projects REV 23 by creator-librettist Cerise Jacobs and composer Julian Wachner premieres at Boston’s John Hancock Hall on Friday September 29 – Sunday, October 1, 2017. The new opera is the centerpiece and opening show of the first Boston New Music Festival hosted by Juventas New Music. The opera marks a first outing for the newly reconfigured production company White Snake Projects, headed by Boston producer Georgia Lyman with Jacobs as Executive Producer.
Scroll down for a preview of what’s in store.
You are where you live.
It may not paradise on earth – but in this very special case, it is still a revelation.
Koi fish (symbols of good luck and abundance – and they have delivered) the size of baby whales swim in a pond in the entry hall; Chihulys hide in the shrubs.
Art from all over the world hangs higgledy-piggledly on the walls of every room; trees and plants, large and small, grow in planters all over the floors, forming an indoor forest.
The sprawling Brookline home also includes a flock of chickens; a few pigs; and a teacup chihuahua named Micro Jackson – scheduled for a cameo as Cerberus, the three-headed pooch who guards the gates of hell, in an upcoming work by his mistress.
The picture could have induced a festival of eye rolling. Instead, the night we visited to watch a rehearsal, it induced awe as the glorious sounds of our hostess’ latest opera, REV 23, filled the ground floor, including the voice of a male soprano Michael Mantaci, who play the Archangel Michael and sounds like a castrato, but isn’t he swears.
We were also treated the dulcet tones of Eve (Annie Rosen) singing her aria, “Beyond Paradise” – happened, didn’t it? Eve did leave paradise – also the vocal work of Colleen Daly (Persephone), who had us hovering protectively over our delicate wine glasses and Vale Rideout (Hades).
Welcome to the world of Cerise Lim Jacobs, a teacup woman (and former highly successful Boston litigator) with an outsized wit and raucous imagination, hair on fire these days to create opera for the 21st century.
With a wink and a nod to Baudelaire’s “The Mirror of Art,” Jacobs is determined to hold up a mirror to Our Times through original stories “that illuminate fake news and explore the moral consequences of decisions we make now,”(Cerise) under the auspices of her White Snakes Projects, a 501(c)(3) corporation dedicated to building bridges through the arts.
The 22 chapters of the Book of Revelation were written by the putative John the Divine, who suggests that the world as we know it is doomed and that Christ will come again some day in great glory to establish His Kingdom of perfect justice and righteousness, “and he will reign for ever and ever,”(Revelation 11:15).
Some fine day those who know Christ – and only those true blue believers – will be secure forever in Heaven, and “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away,” (Revelation 21:4).
In other words, there will be Paradise on earth for a select fraternity of really good and proper Christians.
A place of endless summers overflowing with milk and honey, without want, despair, worry or strife.
Turns out Cerise the snake charmer – her first opera was “Madame White Snake” – does not buy that high-fallutin’ brand of snake oil.
“Thinking of Charles and missing him terribly, I wondered if he could possibly be UP THERE? Of course not! They would never let him in, that impossible, irascible, incorrigible, Jewish raconteur. That set me to thinking about what life UP THERE, in Paradise-on-Earth, could be like.”
REV. 23 is the hypothetical, fantastical 23rd chapter of the Book of Revelation, which currently ends at Chapter 22. The plot turns the whole idea of heaven on earth on its head. Also the concept of linear time and proprietary myths and legends.
Cerise’s latest opera is what composer Julian Wachner describes as an “uber-myth,” combining as it does Christian, Greek and Chinese mythologies. The libretto is a mash-up of characters too: Persephone, the reason for the seasons, and Eve; Lucifer and the Roman ruler of the underworld, Hades.
Sun Tzu, the Chinese general and military strategist, the alleged author of “The Art of War” and permanent resident of Hades’s realm offers strategic advice to the Archangel Michael in exchange for the temporary remediation of one or two everlasting torments – and a cup of tea.
Cerise’s libretto stars other characters from Chinese legend too.
The dream sequences is set in Sumerian myths.
And lines are borrowed from King Lear and The Song of Songs.
The three Furies supply choral backup.
This hodgepodge reflects Cerise Jacobs’ upbringing in Singapore, with its stew of faiths and languages.
Her Cantonese-speaking parents initially sent their daughter to a Chinese school, where she learned Mandarin; then they had second thoughts (“They were afraid I would be converted to this horrid little Communist in their midst”) and switched her to a Methodist missionary school, where she learned hymn singing and Bible study.
The family regularly celebrated Hindu festivals and the end of Ramadan with their Tamil and Malay friends, Jacobs recalls. And: “We watched Chinese opera religiously, every Sunday, at my grandmother’s house.”
REV 23’s merry, mismatched group bands together to lament the endless paradisiacal summer on earth that has rendered each of their jobs obsolete.
Bottom line, the opera explores whether humans can retain their essential humanity in a Utopia.
“Can we feel joy without experiencing grief, or love without hate,” Cerise wondered.”Would we eventually rebel against the tyranny of conformity? What is it about human nature and our yearning for knowledge, our striving to push boundaries, our longing to be free that makes us chafe against the prison of perfection. To maintain our creativity, we need to strife.”
Set in the End Times (which many feel is Our Times), Lucifer and Hades disrupt Paradise-on-Earth, a gated community of citizens who have been admitted because their names are written in the Book of Life.
The Archangel Michael threatens: “Your names are recorded in the Book of Life. Your visa to enter and stay/In Paradise . . . I can expel you from Paradise with a little rub of my eraser . . .”
Who exactly comes to mind as the Guy with The Eraser?
Before you answer, please remember that Cerise developed REV 23 during what was easily the most contentious election in American history and that REV 23 is a parable for right now.
“The goal of Archangel Michael to ‘purify’ the citizens of Paradise-on-Earth who have been corrupted by Knowledge (Art, Literature, Drama, Opera, Heavy Metal, Pop), his anti-intellectualism and dedication to making Paradise great again, is focused, in the opera, in an old-fashioned book-burning which culminates in one citizen’s defiance of authority,” Cerise explains. “The much-maligned Eve (Oh, the weaker sex is so easily tempted!) decides to take a stand despite ‘the scary scary thought’ of what lies ‘beyond Paradise,’ and changes the destiny of humankind, at least in this opera. She ventures forth into ‘a brave new world/On the other side of sunrise/Where butterflies go to die.’ I believe is possible to remake Our Times into a brave new world where butterflies go to die . . . At the very least, we have to try.”
That imperative is a revelation in and of itself: butterflies are free.
“REV. 23 … is a madcap yarn, spun with all of Jacobs’ trademark wit, irreverence, and mythopoetic virtuosity – gutsy, unique, hilarious and, ultimately, profoundly moving in its affirmation of the spirit’s irrepressible will to be free,” wrote La Scena Musicale contributor Charles Geyer, who attended a workshop of the opera.
A brief history of the White Snakes Project:
Raise your hand if you ever been confounded by the thought of what to give The Man Who Has Everything for his birthday?
Charles M. Jacobs was a founding member of the Compass Players, the predecessor to the illustrious, infamous Second City. He was also inventor of a quality-control methodology that made evidence-based healthcare widely available. Jacobs founded InterQual, a system now used in most US hospitals, government agencies and health care plans to evaluate the level of services required by each patient.
Cerise wanted to give Charles a very special gift for his 75th birthday. Knowing her husband was passionate about opera, she decided to commission a song cycle to be performed in the couple’s living room. That was 12 years ago, back in 2005.
When the team failed to deliver on a subject that grabbed Cerise, true to form, she jumped in feet first and took charge.
One morning Cerise woke up, sat at her computer and channeled “Madame White Snake,” a 1000-year-old beloved, classical transformation myth, the story of a powerful white snake demon who transforms into a beautiful woman to experience true love.
The 10-minute piece evolved into a full-length opera, ultimately commissioned by Opera Boston and the Beijing Music Festival. Acclaimed American Chinese composer Zhou Long composed the music.
Directed by Robert Woodruff, “Madame White Snake” had its world premiere in Boston in February 2010. It went on to become the highest-grossing production in the history of Opera Boston and won a Pulitzer in 2011 for Long.
Charles Jacobs died at 4 a.m. on October 25, 2010 of heart failure, just before the Beijing premiere of “Madame White Snake.”
“As I sat by his side, a friend asked if I planned to go to the Beijing premiere scheduled in two days time. I replied, ‘Of course not!’ Then I heard Charles saying to me, ‘Why not? You need to stop this knee jerk reaction.’ So I went to the funeral home, made all his arrangements, bought a ticket to Beijing and left on the first flight out. On the plane, I was reading the Boston Globe which had an article about the Beijing premiere. I showed that to a woman sitting next to me. She asked, ‘Where’s your husband? Is he going?’ I replied, Yes, he’s already there and waiting for me,’” explained Cerise.
Cerise Jacobs went on to complete two companion pieces to Madame White Snake, a trilogy she called “Ouraboros,” named after the iconic image of the tail-eating snake, a symbol of life, death and rebirth.
“I count Ouroboros as one of our greatest achievements. But as with all projects I’ve started with Charles, the dream just keeps getting bigger and bigger. The process of bringing Ouroboros Trilogy to fruition caused me to rethink our commitment to bring wondrous, original new opera to our community. As I was working on Ouroboros, I began planning for the next five years of new opera. I realized that to achieve this five-year plan, I need a production company. So I transformed the Friends of Madame White Snake, a grass roots charity we founded to raise money and to shepherd Ouroboros Trilogy, into White Snake Projects, a production company dedicated to producing new American opera that tells stories reflecting our 21st century experiences.”
White Snake Projects embodies all that Cerise and Charles held dear.
“We are committed to creating new American opera that tells original, impactful stories reflecting our community and our world in this 21st century. We are dedicated to the promotion and nurturing of this 400 year old art form by marrying it with the best of 21st century technology. We are committed to local talent and expertise, seeking to hire from our community first. And we are passionate about making our operas accessible to our whole community, not just those that can afford to pay for a ticket, by our promise to give one-third of the seats of each show to those who would otherwise never have the opportunity to experience the wonder of opera.”
Chez Jacobs, the wonder of opera is a revelation: REV 23.
In 2018, White Snakes Project plans PERMADEATH, a video game work that uses performance-capture to render the singers’ avatars as explored through the wheelchair-bound protagonist’s love, loyalty and sacrifice.
In 2019, White Snakes brings MONKEY, a Kung Fu Puppet Parable based on the ancient quest saga, “Journey to the West,” with its main characters played by three life-sized Bunraku puppets.
COSMIC COWBOY in which Cooper, a space probe that landed on a speeding comet, relates the story of the evolution of homo sapiens and our colonization of the world, is slated for 2020.
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