PREVIEW: of the world premiere of Cerise Lim Jacobs’ new opera REV. 23 (music by Julian Wachner), at Boston’s John Hancock Hall – September 29 at 7:30 p.m.; September 30 at 7:30 p.m.; and October 1 at 3 p.m.
Boston-based librettist and myth-maker Cerise Lim Jacobs has an imagination that literally knows no bounds, as amply demonstrated by her newest work, the opera REV. 23, which is set to premiere in Boston this weekend and take audiences on an adventure beyond the End-of-Days.
Revving for Take-Off
The title, REV. 23, is a shorthand formation designating a chapter of the Bible – in this case, a chapter of the Bible’s very last book, the Book of Revelation, chapter 23.
Funny thing, though: the Book of Revelation only has twenty-two chapters. Or so we had always thought.
Cerise Lim Jacobs was brought up a Methodist in Singapore, and her familiarity with Christian prophecy – and the Book of Revelation – was pretty thorough. It was a literary and eschatological familiarity that led her to some interesting musings. Revelation concludes with a beatific vision – a future re-establishment of Heaven on Earth where the “water of life is as clear as crystal” and “there will be no more night.” Might sound pretty good to most; but something about it prompted a strange discomfiture for Jacobs.
“I couldn’t shake away the sense of unease,” she says, “that perhaps I wouldn’t be perfectly happy in a place of perfect happiness.” And out of that discomfort arose a bold conceit.
“It occurred to me that perhaps John of Patmos [the traditional author of the Book of Revelation, also known as St. John the Divine]was speaking through me,” and that perhaps the time had come for his previously unrecorded chapter 23 to be set down. And then set to music for the operatic stage.
I’ll take it from here, John…
Of course, the conceit is tongue-in-cheek, but it reflects a distinctive and charismatically humanist impulse in Jacobs – one already reflected in her earlier, celebrated work for the opera stage. Jacobs was the creator of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Madame White Snake with composer Zhou Long, as well as that work’s incredibly ambitious 2016 expansion into The Ouroboros Trilogy with additional composers Scott Wheeler and Paola Prestini.
In The Ouroboros Trilogy (earlier profiled here), Jacobs created a lavish, beautifully crafted and kaleidoscopic operatic re-telling of one of China’s most cherished traditional myths – the tale of a female snake demon who dares defy fate and convention to become a human being, in a bid to know the ecstasy of mortal love.
There, as here in REV. 23, Jacobs’ sympathies are with the bold transgressors of the universe, suggesting that only by daring to do that which we ought not – or are told we cannot – are any of us truly alive.
Indeed, the very act of writing opera is, for Jacobs, a prime example of just that will to dare. “It takes a crazy person to want to make opera,” Jacobs says blissfully.
What Happens Then?
At the opening of REV. 23, the last trumpet has sounded and the saints have marched in, just as St. John would have it. But the narrative takes a deliciously subversive turn, as we are thrust amidst a guerilla band of Creation’s resistance fighters who refuse to go gently into that bright light.
Instead, in a wild caper aimed at undoing the Rapture, Lucifer and the god Hades along with a motley band of other immortals try their damnedest to re-start the whirligig of history. Jacobs takes delirious delight in mixing Judeo-Christian, classical pagan and Eastern figures, on the admirable conviction that renegades of every creedal stripe have their right to protest. Persephone is on hand. So are the new Adam and Eve. And there’s a provocative, naughty-girl band of Three Furies whose choric commentary on the action is a uniquely ingenious Jacobs masterstroke.
REV. 23‘s score is by Julian Wachner, who speaks delightedly of the experience of setting to music the product of Jacobs’ special, syncretic imagination with its creative collision of varying mythologies.
“I describe it as like that movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” says Wachner. “There’s Toon Town, but for some reason the Disney characters are hanging out with the Warner Brothers cartoon characters. So Dumbo flies around and bumps into Bugs Bunny.”
In short, REV. 23 – previewed in workshop last year at New York’s National Sawdust – is a madcap existential yarn spun with all of Cerise Jacobs’ trademark wit, irreverence, and mythopoetic virtuosity – gutsy, unique, hilarious and, ultimately, profoundly moving in its affirmation of the spirit’s irrepressible need to be free.
REV. 23 runs for three performances on three consecutive days, September 29 at 7:30 p.m.; September 30 at 7:30 p.m.; and October 1 at 3 p.m., all at John Hancock Hall in Boston (180 Berkeley St, Boston, Massachusetts 02116). Tickets may be purchased HERE.
Additional information about the work, and about Cerise Jacobs’ producing organization, “White Snake Projects,” a not-for-profit which not only fosters new opera production but does cultural outreach and educational programming as well, may be obtained HERE.