Cerise Lim Jacobs, Creator & Librettist
“Madame White Snake.” That name evokes a wellspring of childhood memories. I think of sucking on ice kachangs in the sweltering nights of Singapore as the white snake glides across the makeshift opera stage to the accompaniment of cacophonous cars and buses; of sitting cross legged on the floor glued to the grainy TV screen as she sings of love to her mesmerized audience. The immortal snake’s quest for love represented for us all - grandmother, great aunt, mother, nanny and children- the yearning for the ineffable, the courage to follow your heart. We sat for many Saturdays, millions, (perhaps billions), of us, to have our hearts broken again and again by love’s death.
The Legend of the White Snake is so important to the Chinese people that China has designated it an item of “intangible cultural heritage” along with Peking Opera and the Spring Festival. It originated with the Ur people over one thousand years ago as a folk tale to explain the yearly flooding by the Yellow River and has evolved through the centuries, reaching its apex during the Ming Dynasty. Countless Chinese operas, Chinese TV series and Chinese movies have been created from this legend. Yet while our collective Chinese consciousness is imbued with this centuries old myth, it is unknown in the west.
For those of you who are not familiar with this legend, Madame White Snake is a transformation myth, the story of a white snake demon who yearns to be human to experience love. After one thousand years of meditation, the gods grant her wish. While she is transformed physically into a beautiful woman, her essence remains unchanged – she is still a snake and a demon to boot (although many maintain she becomes truly transformed by love.) She falls in love with a herbalist, marries him and becomes pregnant, thus violating all traditional taboos – racial, ethnic, cultural and religious. An Abbot sees through her human form to the snake and, not surprisingly, disaster strikes. Her husband betrays her, and in the moment of betrayal she is transformed back into a snake.
Passion, Love, Fear, Deceit, Betrayal and Death! What wonderful material for opera! What a powerful opera to introduce to a western audience.
It takes passion to want to create opera. If you are not a performing arts company, it also takes a crazy belief that it is possible for an individual to transform that passion into reality. Charles (my husband and artistic partner), believed with me that from this ancient myth, we could create a truly unique new opera, indeed a trilogy of operas called OUROBOROS. Thus we embarked on this adventure to capture poetically, in English, the power of the Legend of the White Snake, expanded to encompass the world through Gilgamesh and Naga.
Charles died on October 25, 2010, after the world premiere of Madame White Snake in Boston and just before its Asia premiere in Beijing, China. I stopped writing for three years and OUROBOROS Trilogy came to a halt. Charles’ three-year anniversary was a watershed in my paralysis – he gave me a resounding kick in the butt at that time. I was galvanized into action. Thus I continued the commissioning and development of Gilgamesh and Naga, the two new parts of the Trilogy. It was Charles’ and my dream to have OUOROBOROS performed together, in an all day marathon. So that’s what I’ve planned for September 2016. OUROBOROS will have three cycles of the three operas; the opening and closing cycles will be all day marathons, an audacious operatic experiment! All told, OUROBOROS will take eleven years from conception to reality. The magnitude of this time span was brought home forcefully when I answered a question from a member of the Boston Children's Chorus about when I started this project. I said, "In 2005," and this girl gasped, "Oh, I wasn't even born then!"
What I’m sure Charles knew, but I didn’t until now, is that I would be entering my most creative phase. After Madame White Snake, Charles said to me, “This is the start of your new career - as a librettist.” I laughed at him. Yes, I laughed and laughed. Yet, here I am, five years from the time Charles died, with seven new operas over the next five years. That deserves a website!
I want to create American opera that comes from my imagination. I'm not interested in writing libretti derived from a play, book, or movie, no matter how great the play or book or movie is. Perhaps I will feel differently later in my development, but right now, there are just too many stories bursting out of me. I need to write what’s inside me, not what’s inside someone else. I don’t mean to overstate my point: I’m not saying that there is no place for creating libretti from novels or movies; of course there is. It's part of the tradition of opera from the genesis of the art form. I mean only that I'd like to see original libretti more commonplace in contemporary opera. Wouldn't it be great if one day, other art forms turn to opera for inspiration, with, say, a filmmaker making a movie based on the story in an opera libretto?
We’re only 15 years into this new century, yet certain phenomena have begun to define our times. The smartphone, social media, video games, private space travel, terrorism, Islamism, mass displacement . . . More than ever, I wonder at the interconnectedness of things. The stories I tell explore these phenomena using two great tools: myth and technology. Myth, the universal stories we’ve told ourselves since humans first began to think, is a tool I use over and over again to connect time past, time present and time future. I am hopeful that writing about what matters desperately, passionately NOW, through a common mythological idiom, will make the new operas we create speak to new audiences. Technology, an ingenious man-made force our children think is part of Nature, can bring the digital generation’s aesthetic to a four hundred year old form of music theater and perhaps demonstrate to them that opera can be really cool.
The five years of opera that I have planned run the gamut of 21st century milestones. Video games are the most ubiquitous form of entertainment in this century, surpassing movies and television. They also embody the oldest myth in human consciousness – the heroic quest, the fight between good and evil. PermaDeath, an interactive video game opera, explores this new form of entertainment and the synergy among player, avatar and gods. It’s appropriate that “avatar” is Sanskrit for the “manifestation of a deity.” For today, we’ve traded in our old gods for new digital ones.
Cosmic Cowboy, inspired by the robotic probe, Philae, landing on a moving comet, is a wondrous achievement for humankind and yes, for the robot! Private industry is now selling space rides and plans are underway to colonize Mars. How can I resist writing about the “last frontier”? Monkey, on the other hand, is based on the “first frontier,” on the centuries old quest saga, “Journey to the West,” combining Kung Fu, puppets and an examination of cruelty wreaked in the name of a higher “ideal”. Think Inquisition, Holocaust, ISIS . . .
I am of the generation that did not grow up with technology. The phenomenon we call high tech fills me with resentment (at my incompetence with its intricacies), envy (at those who are at ease with it) and awestruck (at its power). Computers, smartphones, video games, social media, “e” this and “e” that – it all seems to have sprung up and taken over our world without me. I am determined to catch up and incorporate all the wonders of technology into my libretti. It's exciting to explore the marriage of one of the oldest form of music theater – opera – and the latest in technology. Together with the genius director, Michael Counts, and in partnership with tech company 3LD, we are developing technology to enhance the operatic experience, to transform the presentation of opera.
And of course, what would making opera be without the composers and other expert professionals I work with. Paola, Scott, Julian, Dan - thanks for collaborating with me; Beth, Cori, Michael and Rachel - thanks for helping me bring beauty into this world.
Photos by Adi Soon and ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA