Librettist Cerise Jacobs Plunges into Gaming World for Video Game Opera PermaDeath, Composed by Dan Visconti

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Creator and librettist Cerise Jacobs—hailed by Opera magazine as “intrepid and artistically ambitious”—is quickly establishing a body of original operatic work that blends two of her great passions, myth and technology, in compelling and relevant contemporary stories. Her latest venture, premiering at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater on September 27-29 of this year, is the video game opera PermaDeath, co-written with her son Pirate Epstein, founder of the video game company SqueePlay and a former New England Halo champion. 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, the opera is 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. PermaDeath is produced by White Snake Projects, headed by Boston producer and Artistic Director ofTEDxCambridge Georgia Lyman, with Jacobs as Executive Producer.

Opera has been a featured part of many video games, a frequently-cited favorite example being the classic MIDI opera sequence “The Dream Oath” in the 16-bit Final Fantasy VI. The Legend of Sword and Fairy, a popular Chinese video game, has even been realized onstage as an augmented-reality opera. The arrow has pointed the other direction as well: a 2016 production of Mozart’s Magic Flute in Japan was used as the basis for a 3D puzzle game. But Jacobs’s vision was to build her libretto around a fictional video game in the style of the wildly popular massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) and to merge the “real” and video game universes in a hybrid that suggests the reality-distortion experienced by the gamers themselves. “Fictional” is somewhat inadequate: though the game is not playable, the characters, animation, and important aspects of its technology are being developed in Unreal Engine, a powerful game engine capable of rendering in real time. According to the Newzoo Global Games Market Report, there were 2.2 billion gamers across the globe last year, nearing 30% of the world’s population; by harnessing the dramatic energy of that art form and linking it to the operatic stage, Jacobs seeks to communicate to this enormous multigenerational audience.

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, of Jacobs’s own invention (though one suspects the influence of her own pets of that species). The human world is represented by a 20-something gaming champion named Sonny, grappling offline with the effects of a fast-progressing neurological disease. The bulk of her hours are lived via her avatar, Apollo, who also proves to have a mind of his own. He altruistically encourages her 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. This story plays out on many levels: the worldly reality of a perilously mortal and declining human, the operatic stage, the realm in which the video game takes place, and an ancient mythological canvas where all stories are deceptively predetermined.

For her foray into the rarefied world of video gaming, Jacobs turned to composer Dan Visconti, who works at the intersection of classical and video game music; 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.” Known for composing concert music infused with the rough timbres, propulsive rhythms, and improvisational energy characteristic of jazz, bluegrass, and rock, Visconti is also a classically-trained violinist, resulting in a cross-pollination the Cleveland Plain Dealer describes as “both mature and youthful, bristling with exhilarating musical ideas and a powerfully crafted lyricism.”

Visconti also brings another kind of practical experience to the project. He 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. Based on the hugely popular video game Journey, the interactive performance involves live musicians on stage reacting in real time to the actions of the players in the audience. As Visconti says of PermaDeath:

“Video games represent the next development in dramatic storytelling, a kind of contemporary opera that places the audience at the center of the action. It’s essential that opera provides us with original stories for our time, and I’ve been thrilled that Cerise shares this commitment to original storytelling. In this project, cutting-edge technology is pivotal in blending music, animation, and sound design to transport us to the fantastical realm where our digital avatars reside. It’s been a fascinating exploration of one of today’s most present phenomena.”

Visconti’s works have been played at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, London’s Barbican Theatre, and the Sydney Opera House, among many others venues, by performers including Branford Marsalis, Kronos Quartet, JACK Quartet, New York’s Da Capo Chamber Players, the Berlin Philharmonic’s Scharoun Ensemble, contemporary sextet eighth blackbird, New York contemporary orchestra Alarm Will Sound, and the Albany Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, and Seattle Symphony. He is a recipient of both the Rome and Berlin Prizes for composition, and for his ongoing initiatives to address social issues through music by reimagining the arts as a form of cultural and civic service, he was awarded a 2014 TED Fellowship and delivered a TED talk at the conference’s thirtieth-anniversary gathering. He recently completed a multi-year residency with opera companies including the Metropolitan Opera, Seattle Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, New York City Opera, and the Glimmerglass Festival as recipient of the Douglas Moore Fellowship in American Opera.

Performers for PermaDeath will include soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra; mezzos Sarah Coit and Shirin Eskandani; countertenor Patrick Dailey; tenor Stephen Carroll; and bass-baritones Josh Quinn and Christopher Carbin, who were both involved in workshops of REV. 23. Jacobs’s longtime collaborators Cori Ellison and Zane Pihlstrom served as dramaturg and set/costume designer, respectively.

Additional members of the creative team who demonstrate the novelty of this production include Curvin Huber, Digital Content Designer and Professor of Interactive Media at Becker College, and Director of Preproduction and Animation Catriona Baker, who also teaches at Lesley University. The work of these contributors will be an important focus in the months to come. A custom-built app that allows audience members to engage with the characters, exploring their mythology and attributes as well as the landscape of the game, will be demoed in April at Boston’s PAX East, the largest video game convention in the Northeast, as will Faceware, the cutting-edge facial motion capture technology that captures the singers’ face and lip movements in real time so that their avatars lip sync to the live singing. Individual character triggers for the app, which is still in the BETA testing stage, will be posted on the PermaDeath page of the White Snake Projects website.

Last season’s production of REV. 23 was a hit with critics and audiences alike. Conceived by Jacobs as a comic addition to the decidedly un-comic Book of Revelation, the opera 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.”

The monumental undertaking that culminated in the 2016 premiere of the Ouroboros Trilogy—for which Jacobs wrote all three libretti—was likewise received with widespread acclaim. The Boston Musical Intelligencer proclaimed that “the cast of each opera … performed not just adeptly, but captivatingly. The visual display of the trilogy took advantage of modern digital technology to create awe-inspiring sets.” Special praise was reserved for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Madame White Snake by composer Zhou Long, which was proclaimed to be “excellent, a near perfect score.” As the South Shore Critic blog added: “It was a magnificent night for opera.”

Cerise Jacobs: PermaDeath World Premiere

Sep 27-29
Boston, MA
Cutler Majestic Theater

Composer: Dan Visconti
Creator and Librettist: Cerise Lim Jacobs
Co-Librettist: Pirate Epstein
Dramaturg: Cori Ellison
Music Supervisor: Joshua Jandreau

Director: Sam Helfrich
Costume and Set Designer: Zane Pihlstrom
Digital Content Designer: Curvin Huber
Director of Preproduction and Animation: Catriona Baker

Executive Producer: White Snake Projects
Producer: Georgia Lyman

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© 21C Media Group, January 2018

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