ArtsEmerson opens new season with opera trilogy

by Owen Elphick / Beacon Correspondent • September 14, 2016

1473911577 ouroboros courtesy for web.jpg
The Ouroboros Trilogy: a series of three operas opening this weekend.
Courtesy of Arts Emerson
The Ouroboros Trilogy: a series of three operas opening this weekend.
Courtesy of Arts Emerson

Hanging around backstage at the Cutler Majestic Theatre on Saturday, one could not help but hear, “Happy Ouroboros Day!” on the lips of the cast and crew. This proved to be more than an inside joke; once the audience poured into the theater and settled into their seats, ready for a day—that’s right, a day—of opera to begin, they were read a proclamation from Mayor Marty Walsh officially declaring September 10, 2016 Ouroboros Day. 

Thus was the opening of The Ouroboros Trilogy at ArtsEmerson. An ambitious new endeavor, this project is comprised of not one but three grand operas—Naga, Madame White Snake, and Gilgamesh—all staged at the Cutler over the course of the next week. 

Inspired, in part, by the titular ouroboros—an ancient Greek icon of a snake devouring its own tail—this operatic cycle is the brainchild of Cerise Lim Jacobs, a Boston resident who conceived and wrote the libretti for the trilogy with her husband, the late Charles M. Jacobs. Its full staging on Saturday represented, for Jacobs, the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of work. 

“It has required enormous stamina, and belief in the vision,” Jacobs said, “Especially when Charles died and I was derailed for three years… Because I could no longer see the vision.”

Charles Jacobs died shortly after the launch of the critically acclaimed Madame White Snake, which premiered in 2010 at Opera Boston and received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2011 . The trilogy then lay unfinished until Jacobs felt compelled to complete what she and her husband had started.

“Life is unexpected, and if you don’t seize the moment, it passes you by,” Jacobs said.

Each opera is a full production, performed by three separate casts, and musically conceived by three different composers. Naga tells the story of a young monk who leaves his wife to pursue nirvana, only to be tempted from his journey by the White Snake. Madame White Snake follows Madame White Snake, a snake demon who, longing to understand humanity and experience love, becomes a woman. And Gilgamesh finds Ming, the half-man, half-demon son of Madame White Snake, discovering his birthright and realizing his true powers. 

Many elements combine to tie the production together, not least Jacobs’ libretto, and the continuous, cycling story thread that carries through the three operas. Characters, situations, and musical motifs reappear, as do the major themes of theology, mortality, righteousness, love, truth, and renewal. All three share the same production and creative team, headed by director and designer, Michael Counts, whose use of visual and technological effects was one of the highlights of the whole affair.

Travis Amiel, junior performing arts major, said he was blown away by the technical elements of the show. 

“The very first moment when the curtain comes up, I was just like…‘Wow,’” Amiel said. 

Amiel was referencing the beginning of Madam White Snake, where the eponymous character and her servant, the green snake woman Xiao Qing, slowly glide across the stage in a boat. Behind them is a gigantic screen, showing the lake they are traveling across. As they float along, the view of lake subtly shifts with them, heightening the scene’s realism. 

Every show in the trilogy uses video and projections to create these hyper-detailed stage pictures, and to enhance the story—everything from the setting of the scene to natural disasters to the White Snake in her true form is shown through this technique. There is even one point, in Gilgamesh, where video is projected onto a giant thought bubble, suspended above a sleeping character’s head, to show what he is dreaming. 

Glenn Petry, a public relations representative for ArtsEmerson, described the show as a true multi-media production. 

“The subject matter is really universal,” Petry said. “It starts out with a Chinese myth, and then really branches out into all sorts of other world myths, and brings them all together.”

This is another prominent feature of the trilogy—the way in which it draws on the mystic and religious stories of numerous cultures and seamlessly weaves them together. Starting with the Chinese legend of the White Snake, it mixes in the ancient Egyptian myth of Apophis, the biblical story of Adam and Eve, the Greek tale of Persephone, and several others.

Jacobs described how the White Snake story was the initial “nucleus” of the trilogy. 

“I’ve blown it apart to explore issues like mortality, and truth, and love, and things that everyone understands at some level, but that art sharpens,” she said. “It strips it down to fundamentals.”

Opera is a good form for this, according to Naga’s composer, Scott Wheeler, who teaches in Emerson’s performing arts department. 

“It’s for more people, more entertainment,” he said. “You want for people who are complete strangers to music to come in and love it.”

He encouraged Emerson students to come see The Ouroboros Trilogy. 

“It’s not that opera is scary or difficult,” he said. “It’s just that it’s extreme. If they like something that pushes the limits, they’ll find it here.”

Jacobs, meanwhile, has had her limits pushed in the best of ways—so much so that at the end of Ouroboros Day, when she came out on stage to take a bow, she was in tears.

“I’m so amazed.” she said at the reception held in the Bill Bordy Theatre afterwards. “I’m exhausted.”