I wanted to give my husband, Charles, a very special gift for his big birthday, a difficult endeavor, for Charles was not a person who wanted things. He was passionate about opera so I decided to commission a song cycle for him to be performed in our living room on his birthday. This was way back in 2005.
The group I worked with on this commission was unable to suggest subject matter that resonated with me. One day, I woke up early, sat at my computer and Madame White Snake poured out of me. When Charles got up, I waited until he had his first cup of coffee before handing him my first draft. He looked at it and asked, “What is this?” I replied, “Your birthday present.” Years later, after much blood sweat and tears were shed and re-shed, Charles remarked, “Remind me never to accept a birthday present from you again!”
And so Madame White Snake was born. It soon outgrew its “song cycle” mode as Charles and I worked on iteration after iteration of the libretto. Finally, Charles was satisfied. He said, “I think you may have something here. Let’s send out it to composers.” We had a list of composers recommended by friends in the opera world and we sent the libretto to that list. To my surprise (Charles was never surprised by anything), many of them were interested in the piece, but they did not want to spend two or three years of their life composing a piece to be performed in our living room. In his inimitable fashion, Charles said, “We have two opera companies in Boston. Why don’t you call them up?” So I did.
As expected, my call to Opera Boston (unfortunately now defunct) was met with skepticism. I remember clearly saying to the man who took my call asking to speak to the General Director about my new opera, “I know you think I’m a crank, but I assure you, one day, you’ll turn to me and say, ‘Cerise, you’re the crank call I’ve been waiting all my life for.’” And indeed he did. For not only did Madame White Snake have a glorious premiere by Opera Boston at the Cutler Majestic Theater in February 2010, it went on to win the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for its composer, Zhou Long.
Madame White Snake’s co-commissioner, the Beijing Music Festival, scheduled the Asia premiere in Beijing for October 27, 2010. Charles and I booked our tickets immediately. In September, however, Charles had a seizure during a Board meeting at Beth Israel Hospital. His fellow Board members, all doctors, immediately sprang into action and revived him. We had one precious month after that seizure to say all the things that one should say to the person they love dearly. I will always be grateful that I had one month to say “I’m sorry, I love you, and thank you,” to the man who built a new world with me.
Charles died on October 25, 2010 at 4am. 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.”
For three years after Charles’ death, I did absolutely nothing to advance the other operas we had begun. I had lost not just my husband, but my artistic partner, my greatest critic and greatest supporter. On his three year anniversary, he gave me a big kick in the butt and I was spurred into action. I finished the other two operas—Naga and Gilgamesh—companion pieces to Madame White Snake. For our Pulitzer Prize winning opera was one of a trilogy of operas called Ouroboros, named after the iconic symbol of the tail-eating snake, the symbol of life, death and rebirth. It was Charles’ and my dream to have the entire Ouroboros Trilogy performed in an all day marathon, with wonderful meals in between. In September 2016, that dream became reality, almost twelve years after Charles and I first dreamt it. We premiered Ouroboros Trilogy in an all-day marathon at the Cutler Majestic Theater in Boston, the same theater that presented Madame White Snake.
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 Charles and I hold 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.