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PermaDeath, a New Video Game Opera from Creator and Librettist Cerise Jacobs and Composer Dan Visconti, Premieres in Boston Sep 27-29

The world premiere of the video game opera PermaDeath, written by creator and librettist Cerise Jacobs and composed by Dan Visconti, the composer of Opera Philadelphia’s recent Andy Warhol-themed ANDY: A Popera, takes place at Boston’s Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater from September 27-29. PermaDeath is the “intrepid and artistically ambitious” (Opera magazine) Jacobs’s most technologically sophisticated work to date, requiring a host of technical collaborators, and focuses on a central character suffering from ALS, which required an entirely different kind of collaboration and research. The libretto was co-written with Jacobs’s son, Pirate Epstein, founder of the video game company SqueePlay and a former New England Halo champion. New York-based opera director Sam Helfrich, who helmed the first performances in New York of Péter Eötvös’s Angels in America at New York City Opera last year, directs; and conducting Visconti’s score is Daniela Candillari, who has worked with Bang on a Can Opera and recently conducted Gregory Spears’s Fellow Travelers at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Performers include sopranos Rachele Gilmore and Amy Shoremount-Obra; mezzos Sarah Coit and Shirin Eskandani; countertenor Patrick Dailey; tenor Stephen Carroll; and baritone Josh Quinn and bass Christopher Carbin, who were both involved in workshops of Jacobs’s last opera, REV. 23. Jacobs’s longtime collaborator Zane Pihlstrom serves as set and costume designer. PermaDeath is produced by White Snake Projects.

Recipient of both the Rome and Berlin Prizes, as well as a 2014 TED Fellowship, Dan Visconti is uniquely suited to Jacobs’s latest project. Reviewing his characteristically eclectic ANDY: A Popera, the Philadelphia Inquirer found that the score “formed gorgeous new land where the tectonic plates of rock and classical normally only grind.” He also serves as Artistic Director at Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble, a concert organization whose innovative programs include collaborations with pop musicians from other cultures, educational partnerships with the incarcerated and at-risk youth, and an audience-interactive video game concert. But for the unique needs of this pioneering opera with a fictional “massively multi-player online” game (MMO) at its center, the composition of the music was only the beginning. The characters, animation, and important aspects of the game’s technology are being developed in Unreal Engine, a powerful game engine capable of rendering in real time. For that part of the project, Jacobs turned to two institutions that lead the world in design and video game development: Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and Becker College. Participants in the project included Mary Jane Begin, Senior Critic and Adjunct Professor at RISD; Paul Cotnoir, Ph.D., Associate Dean of the School of Design and Technology at Becker College; and Curvin Huber, the opera’s Director of CGI and Professor of Interactive Design at Becker College, along with various groups of their students. Led by Adjunct Professor Ryan Canuel, the Becker collaborators are also developing a custom-built Augmented Reality app for PermaDeath, available at Google Play or the Apple App Store, which allows the audience to engage with the characters in the game, exploring their mythology and attributes as well as the landscape in which they move. Another critical technological component of the opera is Faceware, a facial-motion capture technology Huber and his team have customized to render the singers’ face and lip movements in real time so that their avatars mimic the live singing.

While the technology looks forward, the fictional game at the heart of PermaDeath is populated by figures from Greek mythology, including Apollo, Artemis, Adonis, Aphrodite, and Niobe, along with a pig sidekick named MiniB. The human world is represented by a 20-something gaming champion named Sonny – sung by Rachele Gilmore, a coloratura soprano whose voice has been praised for “enormous vocal power, depth of feeling and beauty of tone” (Miami Herald). Offline, Sonny is grappling with the early stages of ALS; though still able to stand under her own control, she has begun using a wheelchair and is dealing with pain and motor control loss. Her avatar Apollo proves to have a mind of his own, and altruistically encourages Sonny to make a high-stakes decision: to enter a “Tournament of Death” for a $3 million prize that would allow her to pay for increasingly needed care, but which risks “permadeath” for him. If they lose she will never be able to use him again, sacrificing one of her closest companions.

To ensure that her onstage presentation of the disease was both compassionate and accurate, Jacobs sought out Ron Hoffman, the Founder and Executive Director of Compassionate Care ALS, who served as an invaluable resource and proved very enthusiastic about the opera, admiring the way it shows someone living life with ALS rather than being defined by the disease. With Hoffman’s help, a panel discussion entitled “Journeying with ALS: Finding Voice Through Art, Music and Technology” has been organized for September 13, hosted by Lesley Art + Design, whose Assistant Professor of Animation, Catriona Baker, is PermaDeath’s Director of Preproduction and Animation. Also planned in conjunction with the panel discussion is an art exhibit of works by artists in the Lesley community who have been touched by disability, to be anchored by portraits by Jon Imber, a revered American painter who spent the last two years of his life with ALS. His widow, Jill Hoy, herself a well-known Maine landscape artist who was also caregiver for Imber, is loaning the paintings for the occasion, and also participates in the panel discussion. This show is entitled “What I Would Say to You: Portraits by Jon Imber” and is curated by Andrew Mroczek. The exhibit will be at the Raizes Art Gallery in the Lunder Arts Center, Lesley Art + Design (Sep 4-16).

Jacobs’s previous productions have been hits with critics and audiences alike. Last season’s REV. 23, conceived by Jacobs as a comic addition to the decidedly un-comic Book of Revelation, was declared by La Scena Musicale to be “a privileged, early glimpse of the Apocalypse – and beyond – courtesy of resident visionary, opera-maker, and eschatologist nonpareil, Cerise Lim Jacobs,” whose “literary and imaginative feracities are prodigious.” Classical Voice North America praised composer Julian Wachner’s “endlessly creative score.” The Boston Musical Intelligencer left no doubt about the audience’s reaction: “An eccentric vision of a world before the Beginning, REV. 23 received an eager standing ovation from an ecstatic audience.”

To purchase tickets for PermaDeath at Boston’s Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater, September 27-29, click here.

Cerise Jacobs: PermaDeath world premiere and associated events
Sep 4-16
Cambridge, MA
Lesley Art + Design
Raizes Art Gallery in the Lunder Arts Center
“What I Would Say To You: Portraits by Jon Imber”
Art exhibit featuring works by Imber
Curated by Andrew Mroczek

 Sep 13
Cambridge, MA
“Journeying with ALS: Finding Voice Through Art, Music and Technology
Panel discussion with participants to include:
Cerise Lim Jacobs, Creator and Librettist, Moderator
Ron Hoffman, Founder and Executive Director, Compassionate Care ALS
Dr. James Berry, Co-Director, Massachusetts General ALS Multidisciplinary Clinic
Steve Saling, architect
Jill Hoy, artist and widow of Jon Imber
Dr. John Landers, Landers Lab, U Mass Medical School
Wine reception following, hosted by Lesley Art + Design

Sep 27-29
Boston, MA
Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater
Sonny: Rachele Gilmore
Apollo: Josh Quinn
Artemis: Amy Shoremount-Obra
MiniB: Patrick Dailey
Adonis: Sarah Coit
Niobe: Stephen Carroll
Marsyas: Christopher Carbin
Aphrodite: Shirin Eskandani

Creative team:
Composer: Dan Visconti
Creator and Librettist: Cerise Lim Jacobs
Co-Librettist: Pirate Epstein
Conductor: Daniela Candillari
Dramaturg: Cori Ellison
Transmedia Consultant: Magda Romanska
Music Supervisor: Joshua Jandreau

Director: Sam Helfrich
Costume and Set Designer: Zane Pihlstrom
Director of CGI: Curvin Huber
Sound Designer: Mathew Solomon
Lighting Designer: Derek Van Heel
Director of Preproduction and Animation: Catriona Baker

Executive Producer: White Snake Projects
Associate Producer: Jessica Ernst


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© 21C Media Group, August 2018

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