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Visionary Creator and Librettist Cerise Jacobs Premieres Ouroboros Trilogy (Sep 10-17): Scott Wheeler’s Naga, Zhou Long’s Madame White Snake, and Paola Prestini’s Gilgamesh

Burt Sun

Cerise Jacobs, a creator and librettist who stands at the very center of her operatic development process, initiating the concept, writing the text, and choosing the composer solely according to the unique demands of each libretto, premieres her Ouroboros trilogy in Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater (September 10-17), presented by ArtsEmerson. Of the three operas comprising the trilogy (Naga, Madame White Snake and Gilgamesh), only Madame White Snake has been produced before: co-commissioned by Opera Boston and the Beijing Music Festival, it premiered at Opera Boston in 2010 and in Beijing later that year, before winning the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for music. Each of the operas can stand alone, but together they form a whole with no beginning or end, embodying the ancient Greek ouroboros symbol of a serpent eating its tail. There is a direction to the three librettos, but any one of them can begin the cycle, thus the ambitious world premiere of the trilogy consists of three complete performances, each beginning with a different opera. Also crucial to Jacobs’s concept is that each opera has its own composer: Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble co-founder Scott Wheeler for Naga, celebrated synthesizer of Chinese and Western idioms Zhou Long for Madame White Snake, and interdisciplinary impresario Paola Prestini for Gilgamesh.

All three productions will be designed and directed by multi-media enthusiast and visual artist Michael Counts, with dramaturgy by opera polymath Cori Ellison and creative production by Beth Morrison Projects. Other members of the creative team are S. Katy Tucker, video and projection design; Zane Pihlström, costume design; and Yi Zhao, lighting design. Three different groups from the Boston Children’s Chorus – winner of the 2013 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award – will also participate, as will three different conductors: Naga will be conducted by Hartford Symphony Music Director Carolyn Kuan, Madame White Snake by Singapore Symphony Music Director Lan Shui, and Gilgamesh by Trinity Wall Street’s Director of Music and the Arts Julian Wachner. The entire trilogy will also be recorded for release on Prestini’s VIA Records.

As Naga composer Scott Wheeler says:

“I don’t think anyone in the history of opera has ever done this before – three connected operas by one librettist and three different composers. As with the Wagner Ring Cycle that is a clear antecedent to this work, each opera creates its own world, yet there are all sorts of connecting strands and deepening emotional resonances. And the characters are always passionate in the most operatic ways.”

Playing a significant role in all three stories are Madame White Snake, a snake demon transformed into a beautiful woman, and her servant Xiao Qing, a half-human green grass snake who, as a man in a former life, loved Madame White Snake but was rejected by her. These two figures enter and transform what are, at root, archetypal stories: the Buddhist householder who leaves his family to become a wandering mendicant in Naga; the half-divine hero and his quest in Gilgamesh; and the twin tales of a supernatural being who longs to be human and a human who longs only for nirvana in Madame White Snake. Different characters across the trilogy often echo counterparts from the other pieces, suggesting a single story in an infinite array of guises. With a variety of quoted texts, Jacobs also shows the recycling of mythical images through the filter of different times and places: from the ancient river civilizations through the biblical Middle East to Shakespeare and William Blake, with a little Harry Potter thrown in for good measure. And all three librettos are permeated from top to bottom with the cyclical idea of the ouroboros: whether on the scale of life, death and rebirth; waking and dreaming; a circle traced by a character’s steps; or a child’s anklet and the circular text of the nursery rhyme that heralds its appearance.

Praised by Opera News for its “real lyricism” and “simple and clean” language, the “elegant English text” of Jacobs’s libretto for Madame White Snake was cited as a major factor in the opera’s outstanding success in its 2010 production. The beloved thousand-year-old Chinese legend of the white snake that was her source (and designated in China as an “item of intangible cultural heritage”) was a catalyst for her creative development dating back to childhood, but it was her late husband Charles who inspired Jacobs with the courage to leave a career as a trial lawyer and devote her time and abundant energy to creative work, a story she details in a 2013 TED talk which can be seen here. Including the Ouroboros trilogy, Jacobs has seven new operas scheduled for production over the next five years, with subjects ranging from video games to a new closing chapter for the Book of Revelation, all based, as is her practice, on her own original stories.

Cerise Jacobs: Upcoming performances

Aug 12-19
Boston, MA
When the White Snake Cries
Boston Children’s Museum

Sep 10-17
Boston, MA
Ouroboros trilogy (world premiere)
Naga by Scott Wheeler (co-commissioned by Friends of Madame White Snake and Boston Lyric Opera)
Madame White Snake by Zhou Long (co-commissioned by Opera Boston and Beijing Music Festival)
Gilgamesh by Paola Prestini (commissioned by Friends of Madame White Snake)
Cutler Majestic Theater
Presented by ArtsEmerson
Michael Counts, director and production designer
Carolyn Kuan, Lan Shui, and Julian Wachner, conductors
Creative Production by Beth Morrison Projects
Katy Tucker, video and projection designer
Zane Pihlström, costume designer
Yi Zhao, lighting designer

Sep 10: Naga, Madame White Snake, Gilgamesh
Sep 13: Madame White Snake
Sep 14: Gilgamesh
Sep 15: Naga
Sep 17: Gilgamesh, Naga, Madame White Snake

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© 21C Media Group, April 2016

Poster and Photo: Burt Sun

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