Librettist Cerise Jacobs Collaborates with Visual Art and Technical Virtuosos for Video Game Opera PermaDeath

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The latest undertaking for the “intrepid and artistically ambitious” (Opera magazine) creator and librettist Cerise Jacobs is the upcoming video game opera PermaDeath, premiering at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater on September 27-29 of this year. Co-written with her son Pirate Epstein, founder of the video game company SqueePlay and a former New England Halo champion, at the heart of the opera is a fictional video game populated mainly by figures from Greek mythology, the creation of which required a diverse collection of outstanding artistic and technological collaborators. Jacobs had already found, through music workshops of previous operas organized in partnership with New England Conservatory, that the willingness of students to experiment with new ideas and the expertise of their professors could immeasurably enrich the developmental process. To address the unique challenges of PermaDeath she thus reached out 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 Digital Content Designer and Professor of Interactive Design at Becker College, along with various groups of their students.

Mary Jane Begin – an artist and author whose book Willow Buds, The Tale of Toad and Badger has just won the prestigious Bing Xin Children’s Literature Award – contributed to the design of PermaDeath with the help of a class of about 20 students working collaboratively during a five-week class in RISD’s Illustration Department last winter. Starting from just the libretto and consulting regularly with the creative team, Professor Begin guided the students through research into video game art and Greek history and mythology, before embarking on story mapping and the development of characters, weaponry, environments and storyboards as they produced concept art for the opera. Apart from their artistic contributions, these students represented an inspiring demographic for Jacobs. Not only were they enthusiastic about video games, but they were quick to point out that in online gaming the gender of the players is irrelevant. Opera history is of course also filled with examples of gender-blindness, and this resonance had its effect on Jacobs’s story line and casting choices. Sonny, the main character, is female but lives much of her life through a male avatar; the character of Niobe is sung by a tenor; and that of Adonis by a mezzo-soprano.

Building on the 2D concept art from RISD, technological solutions for the 3D and interactive elements are in development at Becker College, whose Interactive Media Design program is renowned for creating cutting-edge applications for video game technology. Leading this part of the process are Becker’s Curvin Huber and Paul Cotnoir. Huber is a 3D illustrator specializing in 3D modeling, animation, simulation, and interactive storytelling, and one of his classes at Becker was devoted to building characters and digital sets. PermaDeath will showcase video game fight scenes involving larger-than-life avatars created by these students, as animated by Huber and other Becker team members to composer Dan Visconti’s fight music, overlaid with electronic video game sound effects. Another critical technical 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.

The Becker collaborators, led by Adjunct Professor Ryan Canuel, are also developing a custom-built app for PermaDeath that 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. The app may be downloaded at Google Play or the Apple App Store. Individual character triggers for the app are posted on the PermaDeath page of the White Snake Projects website, which can be found here.

As Cotnoir says of the project:

“I personally feel that thePermaDeath operaproject is destined to be a watershedeventin both opera and interactive media. It combines the use of live-streaming motion capture, high-resolution 3Dgraphics, and a unique interaction between thevirtual world and thereal world. Real-worldeducational activities like this one perfectly exemplify the value and relevanceof a Becker education, and Becker College students and the Interactive Media Design program have benefitted greatly from being at the hub ofa whole host of incredibly talented people from White Snake Projects, Rhode Island School of Design, and many others, for this collaboration around a project that has neverbeforebeenattempted.”

As a mark of Becker’s enthusiasm, the school is devoting a full day to promoting the app and Faceware at the upcoming PAX East conference in Boston, the largest video game convention in the Northeast, where it has its own booth. The next day the conference will host a panel discussion including Jacobs, Huber, and artists and designers from other collaborating institutions.

A test scene for the opera can be accessed here, and a trailer is available here.

PermaDeath is composed by Dan Visconti, perhaps best known in the opera world as the composer of Opera Philadelphia’s recent Andy Warhol-themed ANDY: A Popera; directed by New York-based opera director Sam Helfrich, who helmed the first performances in New York of Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös’s Angels in America at New York City Opera last year; and conducted by Daniela Candillari, who has worked with Bang on a Can Opera and recently conducted Gregory Spears’sFellow Travelersat the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Producing PermaDeath is White Snake Projects, headed by Boston producer and Artistic Director of TEDxCambridge Georgia Lyman, with Jacobs as Executive Producer. Performers will 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 collaborators Cori Ellison and Zane Pihlstrom serve as dramaturg and set/costume designer, respectively.

Cerise Jacobs: PermaDeath lead-up events and world premiere

April 5
Boston, MA
District Hall
Mass DIGI “Made in MA” party
PermaDeath Faceware demo

April 5-8
Boston, MA
Boston Convention & Exhibition Center

PAX East 2018
April 6: PermaDeath Booth
April 7: PermaDeath Panel at 1pm, Bumblebee Room

Sep 27-29
Boston, MA
Cutler Majestic Theater

Cast:

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
Conductor: Daniela Candillari

Creator and Librettist: Cerise Lim Jacobs
Co-Librettist: Pirate Epstein
Dramaturg: Cori Ellison
Transmedia Consultant: Magda Romanska
Music Supervisor: Joshua Jandreau

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

Executive Producer: White Snake Projects
Producer: Georgia Lyman

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© 21C Media Group, March 2018

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