The newest opera from creator and librettist Cerise Jacobs and her activist opera company, White Snake Projects, is titled Cosmic Cowboy: a work of poli sci-fi that blends ancient history and fantasy to talk about the subject of colonization. Jacobs’s twin inspirations were the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock and the historic landing of the space probe Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, both of which events, undeniably captivating to the human imagination, also lead to questions about the consequences of the colonizing impulse. Composed by Elena Ruehr, an award-winning faculty member at MIT who has also been a Guggenheim Fellow, a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, and composer-in-residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Cosmic Cowboy premieres at ArtsEmerson’s Robert J. Orchard Stage in Boston on September 25-27.
Ruehr’s music, especially for strings and voices, has been the subject of many recordings. Three of her six string quartets were commissioned by the Cypress String Quartet, which in collaboration with the Borromeo Quartet and Stephen Salters recorded Six String Quartets by Elena Ruehr on the Avie label. The quartets have also been performed live by ensembles including the Arneis, Biava, Lark, Quartet Nouveau, Roco, and Shanghai string quartets. Her major orchestral works and her opera Toussaint Before the Spirits were recorded on the BMOP label by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and an album of her choral music was released by The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and NOVUS NY, led by Julian Wachner. The composer characterizes her compositional style as having a complex structure beneath a simple surface; the music for Cosmic Cowboy has echoes of John Adams and Barber, with world music and ancient scales that sound surprisingly modern thrown into the mix. Describing the genesis of her collaboration with Jacobs, Ruehr says:
“I saw the Ouroboros Trilogy live in Boston and was really impressed by the production values and fantasy and imagination of the work, so I approached Cerise and said I was a composer and wanted to work with her. This might not have come to anything, but she had also worked with Julian Wachner, my collaborator on the album Averno; at his recommendation, she suggested we work together on Cosmic Cowboy. I was a childhood sci-fi geek and still love that kind of story, so I jumped at the opportunity.”
Cosmic Cowboy is the kind of eclectic romp through the universe that has almost become a signature for Jacobs, ranging from the formation of the cosmos by the mating of the Sumerian gods Tiamat and Apsu to a touching pas de deux between the robotic probe Cooper and Tiamat’s daughter, Tia. The exploded canvas of the tale also involves a colonization project on Mars, but in the end, this is an intimate story that asks deep questions about what it means to be human, while fully justifying Opera magazine’s characterization of Jacobs as “intrepid and artistically ambitious.”
Last season, White Snake Projects debuted a new multi-year community engagement initiative called SING OUT STRONG, which fosters the creation of new songs on themes arising from the company’s mainstage operas and which bridges the gulf that typically exists between a company’s operatic productions and its community and educational activities. SING OUT STRONG: DeColonized Voices is commissioning ten songs on the theme of colonization which will tour throughout the Boston community, before a selection of them are presented on the mainstage as a curtain-raiser before Cosmic Cowboy, complementing and giving context to the opera. Cosmic Cowboy follows last year’s premiere of the immigration opera I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams, composed by Jorge Sosa, with a libretto by Jacobs. Turning this season to the subject of colonization continues the mission of taking on politically charged themes to which White Snake Projects is devoted. As Jacobs says:
“We want to be an activist opera company – one that integrates social activism and original opera; partners with other activists to cross-promote important social issues and opera, and redefines how opera is made by involving young people from our community. … As an activist opera company, we need new language to talk about opera, and new, younger, diverse voices offering different perspectives. Only then can we give voice to the diversity that is America, engage new audiences and bring opera to our communities.”
Dreamer added to the consistent track record of sensational, critically acclaimed productions that Jacobs and White Snake Projects have developed in Boston. The critics warmly embraced the opera and its ambitions: I Care if You Listen described it as “enormously successful,” praising Jacobs for her “astute observations of the multifaceted hardships faced by ‘in-between people’ in various immigrant populations,” Sosa for music that was “well-balanced to the story’s narrative” and contained “strong emotional peaks and valleys, magnified by the characters’ impassioned performances,” and director Elena Araoz for her “insightful directorial touch.” Declaring the cast to be “top-notch,” the Boston Globe elaborated that “White Snake Projects’ immigration opera is a timely tale haunted by American dreams. Jacobs’s collaboration with … Sosa might be White Snake’s least logistically complex affair to date. It’s also the best.” More recently, after the New York premiere at the Prototype Festival of Jacobs and composer Julian Wachner’s REV. 23, originally produced in Boston in 2017, the New York Times proclaimed the opera to be “a madcap explosion of lovable ludicrousness.”