Death By Life

May 20-25, 2021


Commissioned and Produced by White Snake Projects

Cerise Lim Jacobs
Creator and Librettist


White Snake Projects and its 2020-2021 programs programs are supported in part by a grant from the Boston Cultural Council and administered by the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture.

NEA logo

Death by Life is made possible in part by a CARES Act grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Key art based on "Freedom Cost," used by permission of artist Renaldo Hudson. Learn more about "Freedom Cost"

Read the reviews!

  • I Care If You Listen
  • "There may be no better medium than opera to present these stories. No mythical gods or exaggerated madness is needed: reality is enough. In Death by Life, lived experience is the guide, with the intention to look beyond obvious horror to highlight the human spirit."

  • Seen And Heard International
  • "Strip away the remarkable visuals and technological wizardry, and Death by Life is the stuff of which opera is made."



    It's important that we bring the words of the incarcerated to you, not our version of their words, or our interpretive gloss on it.

    We acquired the rights to several stories from incarcerated writers and their words form the basis of the libretto. We commissioned five Black composers to tell these stories.

    "There are over 200,000 of us/ And we are brilliant/ We’re stripped of everything/ But survive by invoking/ A different kind of love/ A different kind of hope/ A different kind of dream, A different kind of life"

    The Chorus of the Incarcerated by Eric Blackmon

    Artist of "Freedom Cost"

    Alice Kim Advisor and Consultant


    Leila Adu Leila Adu
    Jacinth Greywoode Jacinth Greywoode
    Jonathan Bailey Holland Jonathan Bailey Holland
    David Sanford David Sanford
    Mary D. Watkins Mary Watkins

    Creative Team

    Cerise Lim Jacobs Creator + Librettist
    Keith McGill Dramaturg
    Tianhui Ng Music Director


    Monica Cosby Monica Cosby is the lead organizer of Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration and is a wonderful and valuable spirit in the Chicago movement community. Follow the link above to read more about Monica.
    Joe Dole Joe Dole is a published writer, artist, and activist, has been incarcerated for over 22 years, and spent a decade in the notorious TAMMS supermax prison. Follow the link above to read more about Joe.
    Raul Dorado Raul Dorado is an incarcerated writer and criminal legal reform advocate. Follow the link above to read more about Raul.
    Phil Hartsfield Phil Hartsfield is a father and writer. He is currently incarcerated in Illinois serving what amounts to a life sentence. Follow the link above to read more about Phil.
    Mary L. Johnson Mary L. Johnson is a pioneer in the struggle against Chicago police torture. Follow the link above to read more about Mary.
    Andrew Phillips Andrew Phillips has been in prison for the last 12 years, and believes that each moment has been a gift. Follow the link above to read more about Andrew.
    Devon K. Terrell Devon K. Terrell was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago and is a graduate of Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls bachelor’s degree program. Follow the link above to read more about Devon.
    Eric Blackmon Eric Blackmon is a Chicago native who is an artist, poet and paralegal at the MacArthur Justice Center. He spent more than 15 years in Illinois state prisons for a crime he didn’t commit. Follow the link above to read more about Eric.

    Production Team

    Miguel Flores Production Stage Manager
    Taylor Hansen Production Manager
    Curvin Huber Director of Innovation
    Joshua Jandreau Music Librarian
    Becky Marsh Lighting Designer/Technical Supervisor
    Jon Robertson Sound Designer/Engineer
    Paul Deziel Projections Designer/Broadcast Engineer
    Rhys Sullivan Unreal Engine Technologist

    The Victory Players

    The Inspiration

    America watched in horror as George Floyd was murdered before our eyes.

    Almost immediately, my inbox filled with statements of support for Black Lives Matter. White Snake Projects did not want this moment to pass without a concrete response, to make a memorial through what we do best – making new opera. We issued a call to action and convened a brain trust comprising diverse participants. Death By Life (Imprisonment) emerged, an opera exploring the intersection of systemic racism and mass incarceration. The virtual opera "Death by Life" was conceived as a monument of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The opera explores the intersection of systemic racism and mass incarceration using texts written by incarcerated writers and their families, with a score by five Black composers—Jacinth Greywoode, Leila Adu-Gilmore, Jonathan Bailey Holland, David Sanford and Mary D. Watkins—representing a broad range of ages and styles. The sets are immersive 3D environments created in Unreal Engine by Curvin Huber, White Snake’s Director of Innovation.


    Untitled design
    Explore with us the intersection of mass incarceration & systemic racism

    Dear Friends of White Snake Projects: We are thrilled to announce three upcoming forums presented in partnership with the University of Chicago Human Rights Lab as a prelude to Death By Life. Each session will be free to attend and streamed over Zoom. Read about about each forum, and follow the links… Read More

    Untitled design
    Three Online Events Exploring Systemic Racism and Long-Term Incarceration (March 30, April 6 & 13)

    Cerise Jacobs and her activist opera company, White Snake Projects, are pleased to announce three online events leading up to the premiere of their new virtual opera, Death By Life. Conceived as a monument of support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killing of… Read More

    White Snake Projects Announces New Virtual Opera “Death by Life”

    Galvanized by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, Cerise Jacobs and her activist opera company, White Snake Projects, began a process of development for a new production that would stand as a monument of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The result is the virtual… Read More

    “To Breathe” — A Virtual Exhibition Exploring Art & Imagination Inside Prisons

    Featuring visual artworks by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated artists, this virtual gallery, To Breathe, is part of White Snake Project’s Death By Life series on “Understanding and Responding to Mass Incarceration” in collaboration with the Pozen Center Human Rights Lab. The title of our virtual exhibition, To Breathe, was inspired by Renaldo… Read More