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Creator and Librettist Cerise Jacobs Teams with Composer Elena Ruehr for World Premiere of Poli Sci-Fi Opera Cosmic Cowboy (Sep 16-18)

Launching their first complete season this fall, thanks to a recently announced $750,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation, Cerise Jacobs and her activist opera company, White Snake Projects (WSP), present Cosmic Cowboy: a work of poli sci-fi that blends ancient history and fantasy to talk about the subject of colonization. Jacobs’s twin inspirations were the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock and the historic landing of the space probe Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, both of which – besides being undeniably captivating to the human imagination – lead to questions about the consequences of the colonizing impulse. Composed by Elena Ruehr, an award-winning faculty member at MIT who has also been a Guggenheim Fellow, a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, and composer-in-residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Cosmic Cowboy premieres at ArtsEmerson’s Robert J. Orchard Stage in Boston, marking the first in-person performance by the company since the start of the pandemic (Sep 16–18). Jacobs elaborates:

“I cannot wait for White Snake Projects to be back in the theater. We’re holding our breaths – from excited anticipation, a little trepidation, and great hope for a fantastic show.”

Cosmic Cowboy is an eclectic romp through the universe that ranges from the formation of the cosmos by the mating of the Sumerian gods Tiamat and Apsu to a touching pas de deux between Cooper, a robotic space probe, and Tiamat’s daughter, Tia. The exploded canvas of the tale also involves a colonization project on Mars, but ultimately this is an intimate story that asks deep questions about what it means to be human, while fully justifying Opera magazine’s characterization of Jacobs as “intrepid and artistically ambitious.” The cast includes soprano Carami Hilaire and countertenor Daniel Moody, who were featured as the title character and White Rabbit, respectively, in WSP’s digital opera Alice in the Pandemic; bass-baritone Tyler Putnam; bass John Paul Huckle, and tenor Charles Calotta.

Cosmic Cowboy also represents WSP’s continued exploration of how opera can harness the power of technology to enlarge its expressive palette and speak to a broader audience: an onstage industrial robotic arm portrays Cooper, and the opera features a six-minute introduction in VR (Virtual Reality), further developing the complex technology that was used in WSP’s 2018 video game opera, PermaDeath. WSP’s newly developed software, Tutti Remote, will also be incorporated into the production. Designed to facilitate live, synchronous performance from remote locations through the internet, Tutti Remote is equally able to manage the timing relationship between a musical score and live performance, automatically controlling lights, projections, sound effects, and supertitles.

Ruehr – whose music has been performed and recorded by a host of string quartets, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and The Choir of Trinity Wall Street with NOVUS NY – characterizes her compositional style as having a complex structure beneath a simple surface. The music for Cosmic Cowboy has echoes of John Adams and Barber, with world music and ancient scales that sound surprisingly modern thrown into the mix. Describing the genesis of her collaboration with Jacobs, Ruehr says:

“I saw the Ouroboros Trilogy live in Boston and was really impressed by the production values and fantasy and imagination of the work, so I approached Cerise and said I was a composer and wanted to work with her. … She suggested we work together on Cosmic Cowboy. I was a childhood sci-fi geek and still love that kind of story, so I jumped at the opportunity.”

The years since the start of the pandemic have been a fruitful time for WSP. The company’s size allowed it to nimbly adapt in ways larger companies had difficulty doing, not only developing the technology and know-how to present digital opera as an integral part of its offerings, but also further extending the reach of its activist mission. These efforts were recognized with a host of complimentary reviews. The Wall Street Journal declared that “the tech wizards … created a remarkable new environment for operatic experimentation,” while Seen and Heard International found that “the visuals … elevated Alice in the Pandemic to a place where opera has never gone before, especially the animation which conveyed emotion as deftly as the music and those who performed it.” Reviewing the company’s second digital opera, Death by Life, I Care if You Listen declared that the “singers … were impressively synced, tuned, and compelling.” The same review was quick to add that much more was achieved than just technical feats: “The digital medium creates a container to elevate original stories, avoid melodrama, and advance a nuanced artistic vision. … Death by Life’s success is not just as art that transcends its impressive technology, but in the company’s communal infrastructure that informs thoughtful work and builds a bridge to further action.” Seen and Heard International agreed: “Death by Life is great theater with an activist edge that brings to mind Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart or Jonathan Larson’s Rent. … And, like the other two plays, Death by Life left me with tears in my eyes.”

About White Snake Projects

White Snake Projects (WSP) is an activist opera company making mission-driven work that unites artmaking with civic practice. It envisions a world where the power of opera expands the collective understanding of community and transforms lives through creative storytelling. The company’s most recent efforts have been devoted to the live digital productions of the Pandemic Trilogy: Alice in the Pandemic addressed the disproportionate strain of COVID-19 on communities of color and essential workers; Death by Life explored long-term incarceration and institutionalized racism; and A Survivor’s Odyssey dealt with the ongoing crisis of sexual and intimate partner violence. A critical element in the exploration of these themes is the establishment of authentic connections with thought leaders in social justice to ensure that the company’s creative work lives in an ecosystem of activism. WSP sees opera not just as performance, but as performance with purpose, a vibrant and vital art form that is also a champion of change.

Cerise Jacobs: Cosmic Cowboy world premiere

Sep 16–18
Boston, MA
Cosmic Cowboy
Arts Emerson Robert J. Orchard Stage

Carami Hilaire (Tiamat/Tia)
Tyler Putnam (Marduk/Commander Mard)
Daniel Moody (Qingu/Cooper)
John Paul Huckle (Apsu/General Aps)
Charles Calotta (Vizier Mummu/Mr. Mu)
Chorus: Lizzy Stant, Carina DiGianfilippo, Xiao Xiao, Juliette Kaoudji, Daon Drisdom, Benjamin Maines, Scott Ballantine, Benedict Hensley

Creative Team:
Composer: Elena Ruehr
Opera Maker: Cerise Jacobs
Director: Sam Helfrich
Music Director: Tian Hui Ng
Orchestra: Juventas New Music Ensemble, Oliver Caplan, Artistic Director

Tech and production team:
Set Designer: Dedalus Wainwright
Projections Designer: Greg Emetaz
Costume Designer: Rebecca Kanach
Lighting Designer: Derek Van Heel
Sound Designer/Audio Engineer: Jon Robertson
Production Manager: Hannah Huling
Executive Producer: White Snake Projects

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© 21C Media Group, July 2022


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