An opera trilogy, against the odds
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BROOKLINE — It started, innocently enough, as a birthday present.
Cerise Lim Jacobs, having recently given up her very successful Boston law practice, woke up in New York one morning in 2004 and began writing the conceptual outline for a song cycle based on Madame White Snake, an iconic Chinese myth. The piece was intended to celebrate the 75th birthday of her husband, Charles, whom she'd married a few years before. The occasion was four years off, but as patrons of the arts, they knew how long it took for these things to come to fruition.
His reaction, Cerise remembered, was initially puzzlement. "'I don't understand this, I don't understand that,'" she said during a conversation in the lush garden of her Brookline home. It sounds a little ungrateful. But Charles, she added, was "a down to earth, irascible, straight-down-the-line kind of person. There was no pretending. You always knew exactly where you stood."
He kept asking questions, she kept rewriting, and the precis eventually grew into a full-fledged opera libretto. "Madame White Snake," with music by the Chinese-born composer Zhou Long, used the myth to explore the intertwining of transience and eternity, the inextricability of good and evil. Premiered by Opera Boston in February 2010, it would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2011, a remarkable achievement for a first-time librettist.
But even before the premiere, Jacobs realized that the story she wanted to tell was larger than a single piece. She began reinventing characters, giving them past and future incarnations. The story went beyond the Chinese legend that inspired it and became a vast narrative of life, death, and rebirth, unfolding over three operas.
Seeing a project like this to fulfillment is something that creative types dream of but rarely achieve. But Jacobs, who was a trial partner at Goodwin Procter, is both an ardent idealist and a nuts-and-bolts operator who gets things done. And so, against the odds, "Ouroboros," the operatic trilogy she wrote — named for the ancient Greek symbol of a snake eating its own tail — will open on Saturday at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
In addition to Long's "Madame White Snake," the trilogy includes "Naga," by Scott Wheeler of Emerson College, and "Gilgamesh," by the New York-based composer Paola Prestini. It is being coproduced by the noted indie-opera producer Beth Morrison and the Friends of Madame White Snake. Michael Counts, a visual artist, is the director and designer. The trilogy will be presented in three cycles — two single-day marathons flanking a trio of performances of single operas — and each cycle will begin with a different opera.
"Where are we historically, in a piece like this?" said Wheeler in an interview. "Cerise is making a huge statement. I don't know any other librettist who has such scope in the conception of three linked libretti. And I've never heard of someone getting three different composers for them, either. But I've been thrilled to be asked to be one of them."
The trilogy is permeated by myth, not just that of Madame White Snake but transformation stories and legends from across a wide variety of cultures. (Wheeler's "Naga" begins with a lengthy prelude exploring creation myths the world over.) Weighty issues are at stake throughout: humanity and immortality, love and betrayal, loyalty to one's own kind versus acceptance of the other. Yet even in its most heady episodes, Jacobs wanted both the texts and the music to have a strong dramatic shape.
That was critical to her choice of composers to complete the trilogy, a process that entailed hours of listening to a list of composers' work. "As part of my quest to create that kind of opera, [I was] looking for a particular composer who understands dramatic arc, narrative, and storytelling, and whose music exhibits the highs and lows of life, who is less interested in abstract intellectualism and much more passion, from the heart," she said. "And when I spoke at length with Scott and Paola, I could actually hear their music in my libretti. Those were the best decisions I've ever made, because the music is overwhelmingly passionate."
The plot's capacious emotional span is what Wheeler — who calls himself a "radical traditionalist" despite his long-standing interest in the avant-garde — found attractive in the libretto for "Naga." "Most libretti read like plays; some read like poems," he said. "Cerise's libretto is clearly an opera libretto. The size of the emotions is operatic. They're mythological characters, and they sing about life and death matters all the time. So it's easy to go to the highest emotional pitch, the highest volume that will soar out over an orchestra."
Prestini, speaking by phone from New York, said that the poeticism of Jacobs's text "left a lot of room for interpretation and for numerous layers." Because the emotional valence of the story was so crucial, she composed by attaching musical motifs and themes "not to characters as much as to emotions and actions. That became a wonderful process of layering meaning" and binding characters together musically.
Though "Ouroboros" represents a significant achievement, it is for Jacobs one step on her quest for what she calls "a vision for what new American opera could be." Her next opera — "REV. 23," composed by Julian Wachner, who will conduct "Gilgamesh" — is slated to open next year, and a video game opera called "PermaDeath," with music by Dan Visconti, is planned for 2018. She has projects in place for the next five years, she said.
"I'm taking popular culture and making it into opera," she said. "I'm specifically designing opera to be entertaining. I don't want people to say to me, 'I'll support you but I don't think I can come to an opera.' I don't want to hear that anymore. I want them to leave feeling 'Wow, that was heartbreaking, I cried. It was like going to the movies, but it was live.'"
The entire enterprise would not have begun without her partnership with Charles Jacobs, who died in October 2010, two days before "Madame White Snake" opened in Beijing. The libretto, she said, "was always contemplating the fact that we simply don't have enough time. And that was for Charles."
"Charles is always present," she said. "I could not do this without Charles. I never would have the courage to begin [this] and I certainly wouldn't have the courage to continue and finish."
Produced by Beth Morrison Projects and the Friends of Madame White Snake. At Cutler Majestic Theatre, Sept. 10-17. Tickets: $10-$128. www.ouroborostrilogy.org