Following a chorus of critical praise for creator and librettist Cerise Jacobs and composer Jorge Sosa’s immigrant-themed opera, I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams, Jacobs’s opera REV. 23, composed by Julian Wachner, will receive its New York premiere in a new production by Los Angeles-based director James Darrah at the 2020 Prototype Festival (Jan 17-18). Called an “endlessly creative score” by Classical Voice North America, REV. 23 adds a satirical twist to an imagined extra chapter in the biblical Book of Revelation. The work premiered in Boston in 2017, and the new Prototype Festival staging marks its first subsequent production. Taking place at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater in Manhattan, it will be produced by Trinity Church Wall Street and conducted by Daniela Candillari.
I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams, which premiered this past September, tells the story of a Mexican immigrant, Rosa, a “dreamer” who is jailed for her activism and threatened with deportation, and the relationship she develops with her attorney, Singa, an ethnically Chinese immigrant from Indonesia. Jacobs and Sosa brought to the project first-hand experience as immigrants from Singapore and Mexico respectively, and both the topic and an intentionally diverse, mostly female cast and creative team reflect the mission of Jacobs and her production company, White Snake Projects, to integrate original opera with social activism. The critics warmly embraced the opera and its ambitions: the blog/digital magazine 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” and 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.” 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.” Led by the “insightful directorial touch” (I Care if You Listen) of Elena Araoz, the principal cast members were also praised by the Globe. Mezzo-soprano Carla López-Speziale “spent most of the opera confined to a small raised square representing her prison cell, and she owned every inch.” Soprano Helen Zhibing Huang was notable for “immaculate coloratura chops and nuanced acting,” and soprano Kirsten Chambers “covered all the other adult roles with chameleonic style.” The Boston Musical Intelligencer found the entire production “timely, poignant, and artistically satisfying.”
REV. 23 also received glowing notices at its 2017 premiere. As La Scena Musicale said: “The city of Boston recently got 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.” The Boston Musical Intelligencer lauded Wachner’s score as an “an endlessly unfolding chain of highly controlled polystylism” that revealed a “deep emotional intelligence,” while the Boston Globe declared that the “protean score deftly employs a grab-bag of 20th-century operatic and musical-theater styles to hold a mirror to the libretto.”
An eclectic roster of characters drawn from the Bible, mythology and Chinese history populates Jacobs’s contemporary fable. For the upcoming Prototype Festival production, soprano Colleen Daly reprises the role of Persephone, whose “mournful second-act aria was a highlight of the evening” in the premiere (Boston Musical Intelligencer), and countertenor Michael Maniaci – “one of the greatest singers of his generation (Toronto Globe and Mail) – returns as the Archangel Michael. Joining them are baritone Alexander Elliott – “simply perfect” in New York City Opera’s recent La fanciulla del West (The Observer) – as Lucifer; tenor Brian Giebler – praised by the New York Times for “lovely tone and deep expressivity” – as Adam, bass Paul An as Sun Tze, and soprano Sophia Byrd as Eve. The three Furies are sung by mezzo-soprano Melanie Long, also reprising her role from the 2017 premiere, soprano Anna Schubert and mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell.
Jacobs’s collaborators on the new production of REV. 23 represent a cross-section of some of the most significant names on the contemporary opera scene. Julian Wachner, director of music at Trinity Church Wall Street and artistic director of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival as well as an active composer in many genres and an in-demand guest conductor, was named one of Musical America’s Top 30 Professionals for 2018. Director James Darrah, known for creating visually and emotionally arresting work at the intersection of theater, opera, and film, has led projects around the world, including the world premieres of two operas that won “Best New Opera” from the Music Critics Association of North America. Daniela Candillari, who also served as conductor of White Snake Projects’ last production, PermaDeath, is similarly in-demand as a conductor of new works, and makes her New York Philharmonic debut this season conducting Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Jacobs, herself named a 2017 Mover & Shaper by Musical America and one of Boston’s 100 Most Influential People of Color in 2018, has written librettos for six White Snake Projects productions to date, including 2010’s Madame White Snake, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music the following year for composer Zhou Long. Based on one of China’s most well-known folktales, the story of a demon in pursuit of love, Madame White Snake has had five productions so far, including one by the co-commissioning Beijing Music Festival the year of its Boston premiere, a 2013 tour of Taiwan, a Boston revival in 2016 as part of Jacobs’s complete Ouroboros trilogy, and a Hong Kong premiere last season. Yet another production has just been announced: as part of a new three-year artistic collaboration between the Beijing Music Festival and Paris’s Opéra Comique, the two organizations will co-produce Madame White Snake in 2022 as the Beijing Music Festival celebrates its 25th anniversary.
White Snake Projects brings diverse, timely and relevant opera, based on original stories by Cerise Jacobs, to Boston’s main stages. Like the legendary White Snake demon who becomes human to live intensely, White Snake Projects transforms present-day experience into passionate new opera made in America. The company believes there is no better way to bridge the chasms of race, national origin, and gender than through a reimagined art form combining cutting edge technology, music, theater, and dance. This ambitious strategy kicked off with the Ouroboros Trilogy – a trio of grand operas including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Madame White Snake – in September 2016, and has continued with REV. 23 (2017), PermaDeath (2018), and I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams (2019).