Cerise Lim Jacobs, Methodist-mission-educated Harvard Law School laureate, former federal prosecutor, impresario, and composer-anointing opera librettist, interviewed Saint John the Divine for textural inspiration for the new comic opera, Rev. 23, which she based on the heretofore unpublished last chapter of the 22-chapter Book of Revelation. Jacobs’s discovery adds “…the last battle to recapture Paradise-on-Earth and restore the balance of good and evil to our world. Lucifer recruits Persephone, the only being able to pass freely between Hell and Earth, for the fight against the rulers of Paradise-on-Earth. No one is exempt from this battle.”
Seven years ago, Jacobs wrote the libretto for Zhou Long’s 2011 Music Pulitzer-winning opera Madame White Snake, part of her life-death-rebirth Ouroboros Trilogy. Scott Wheeler’s Naga, and Paola Prestini’s Gilgamesh completed the cycle. [BMInt review here.]
The Julian Wachner/Cerise Lim Jacobs Rev. 23, coming in as her fourth effort, treads the John Hancock Hall boards in its world premiere on September 29th in a generously-staged production conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya and directed by Mark Streshinsky. The run continues September 30th, 7:30pm, and October 1st, 3:00pm. Details and tickets here.
For the next Cerise Lim Jacobs installment, Elena Ruehr will set the librettist’s “Cosmic Cowboy.” Ruehr recently led a conversation with Wachner and Jacobs.
FLE: Readers might like to know how a composer feels when approached by that very rare bird, a librettist with a checkbook.
JW: Anytime you receive an opera commission, it’s an honor. I knew there were other composers being considered. I was basically honored, but it’s also a major investment of time.
ER: Cerise, how have you gotten into the composer’s mind, and do you understand his aesthetic?
CLJ: Unlike most librettists working today, I am focused solely on writing original stories for opera. In Broadway parlance, I write both the book and the lyrics as opposed to adaptations of plays, book, or movies, or biopics of celebrities. This is because I have so many stories to tell — they take up all my creative energy, such that I have no room for anything else. Because my stories are all generated from my imagination, I have to write a working draft of a libretto for a composer to know what he or she is getting into. I listen to all the music of composers I’m interested in and try to imagine whether that music could tell my story using my words. It’s amazing how you can see and hear your story and words in music written for an entirely different piece! When I heard Julian’s music, I knew immediately he was the one for Rev. 23. His sense of drama, narrative, and lyricism was ideal for the piece. We met to see if we could spend the next three years working closely together. We did a mind meld during this meeting, fell in love, and created Rev. 23.
ER: Julian, how have you gotten into the librettist’s mind, and do you understand her philosophy?
JW: Yes, very much so. I think the good thing about Cerise and me with Rev. 23 is that we are both educated in theology and mythology, so our suppositions were pretty grounded. In our initial discourse and investigation of the matter we didn’t have to define terms. It’s surprisingly rare that people know both these subjects. And then as an aside, we both have an interest in adventurous culinary experiences, so we are definitely kindred spirits working together.
ER: Do you try out melodic ideas on the librettist before writing complete scenes?
JW: I wrote the whole first act of the opera before I played it for Cerise.
CLJ: It was stunning and so furious and energetic.
JW: I generally don’t like to bring people into my creative process, so I like presenting complete acts, and then if there’s criticism, that’s great, but I can’t give somebody something partial and then develop from there. That’s how I work.
CLJ: Julian and [Elena] both play and sing their working drafts to me. The first time hearing my words set to music is always an epiphany. Sometimes I want to cry, for the music always adds so many layers of meaning to the text, transforming it from the mundane into something that penetrates deep into our subconscious — exactly what opera should be. I need to get over this sense of awe before my analytical faculties can kick in, so I always ask to hear the music several times over. Sometimes I make suggestions for changes, or request certain effects; most times I am just swept away. During the course of the collaboration, many changes are made to the working draft of the libretto, at the composer’s request as well as my own initiative. Having another creative being to interact with is one of the most fulfilling experiences you can have and it inevitably stimulates new ideas, changes and rewrites. With Rev. 23, we actually deleted the second half of the opera after Julian had already set it, because we decided that the ending just did not work. After a day of brainstorming with the creative team, I rewrote the second half — a totally different story line — and Julian reset the piece. At the time I was still wedded to the original ending, and that made me unsure of the new direction. But now, I’ve forgotten how it ended a few months back. What you’re going to see and hear is a perfectly organic piece that has evolved over time.
ER: Julian, were there any words that were difficult to set?
JW: No, I think Cerise’s text is very musical. The times that I had difficulty setting something to music was when I felt something wasn’t working from a dramatic point of view and then Cerise would change it.
CLJ: He’s a taskmaster and a tyrant, but the bottom line is if the composer is not inspired it’s not going to be good. So I think collaboration is the ability to assess the needs of each person and to meet that without compromising either aesthetic.
ER: Did you ever wish you were writing in a foreign language, so the audience could concentrate on your music?
JW: No. Modern opera should be in the vernacular.
ER: Do you have any advice for me as I am beginning to compose another opera by Jacobs?
JW: Stick to your guns and don’t be afraid of conflict. Embrace the conflict that comes with creative collaboration. Also, comedy works in real time, but opera works only in suspended time.
ER: So comic opera needs to be very carefully considered? Even more than completely dramatic works?
ER: How do you feel about Rev 23?
JW: I am very happy with this work and feel it is one of my best pieces, if not my best piece.
CLJ: I have listened to all of Julian’s music (samples), and this work exemplifies his extensive range, from the lyrical to the dissonant, from clear narrative to the ability to stop time.
September 29, 7:30pm
September 30, 7:30pm
October 1, 3:00pm
John Hancock Hall, 180 Berkeley St, Boston
Commissioned by White Snake Projects
Composer, Julian Wachner
Creator and Librettist, Cerise Lim Jacobs
Director, Mark Streshinsky
Conductor, Lidiya Yankovskaya
Dramaturg, Cori Ellison
Lighting Designer, Lucas Krech
Projection Designer, Barry Steele
Costume and Set Designer, Zane Pihlstrom
Executive Producer, White Snake Projects
Producer, Georgia Lyman
Director of Animation, Catriona Baker
Michael Mayes, Lucifer
Vale Rideout, Hades
Colleen Daly, Persephone
Jonathan Blalock, Adam
David Cushing, Sun Tze
Annie Rosen, Eve
Michael Maniaci, Arch Angel Michael
Jamie-Rose Guarrine, Fury 1
Melanie Long, Fury 2
Nora Graham-Smith, Fury 3
Micro Jackson , Cerberus, the Hell Hound