PREVIEW: of the new opera, PermaDeath, by Cerise Lim Jacobs and Dan Visconti, which will play Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre for three performances, September 27, 28 and 29, 2018.
The theater dims. A martial blare and glistening orchestral clamor suddenly rives the murmuring darkness, and a bewildering vista of strange, vast landscape floods the stage. Two beautiful, luminous, titanic beings – the sibling gods Apollo and Artemis – are in pitched battle with the massive, earthen Niobe and her fourteen grotesque offspring.
The stuff of mythic dreams? Yes. But it’s also the planned dazzler of an opening for the new opera, PermaDeath, in which the gods – like most everything in our increasingly virtual reality – have been digitized.
Conceived and written by Cerise Lim Jacobs and composed by Dan Visconti, PermaDeath is billed as the first video game opera – and it’s no mean technical feat. (The opera even boasts its own companion augmented reality app, developed by Ryan Canuel of interactive software company Petricore, which attendees may download free from the Apple App Store or Google Play and in which they can immerse themselves for 45 minutes before the performance.)
Aiming to bring to opera the visual and visceral impact of the most absorbing of contemporary multi-player, fantasy-based videogames, sequences will play out in vivid grandeur on an enormous video screen. At other times, however, the game world’s mythic figures will pierce the virtual divide, to interact more intimately with the opera’s single mortal protagonist, a tournament-winning young female gamer named Sonny, who is suffering from the gradual progression of ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The notion of a video game opera owes its inspiration to the gamesmanship of Cerise Jacob’s son, Pirate Epstein, who is both an inveterate game player and himself a professional developer in the digital gaming field. Eager to see what all the excitement was about, Jacobs spent hours with Epstein, absorbed in World of Warcraft, asking questions, learning strategies, savoring the mythopoetic underpinnings of much videogame culture – and formulating fantastic operatic plans.
“I came to the realization that video games actually were mythic and inspiring,” Jacobs says, “or can be inspiring. And they are a language we should use to reach young audiences.”
Jacobs, of course, is herself a lifelong connoisseur of world mythologies par excellence – a sensibility she has previously applied to opera-making with her Madame White Snake (and the expanded Ouroboros Trilogy of which it is a part), based on a beloved traditional Chinese myth; and last year’s REV. 23, which mixed Judeo-Christian and Greek myth in a seriocomic mélange that dared glance beyond the End of Days.
But with PermaDeath, Jacobs may be offering both her most technologically innovative work to date, and her most personal and poignant. Parallel to the opera’s saga of epic clashes runs a very human narrative allegory – a sort of techno-age Pilgrim’s Progress, assaying whether mythic consciousness can any longer sustain or inform humanity, or serve to assuage the terrors of mortality.
“When you write something,” Jacobs remarks, “you’re never quite sure of the implications. But watching PermaDeath come to life in rehearsal, it occurred to me that mortality is being explored from the dual perspective of the mortal self and the immortal soul” – the former in the person of the gamer, Sonny, who is captive within an increasingly failing body; the latter, in her game-world avatar, the god Apollo.
Playing with Partners
“I had gone to professional game studios,” says Jacobs of her initial efforts to source technical partners to realize her vision, “but they don’t understand opera.” Nor, she found, did they understand – or care about – the financial exigencies of so complex an art form, especially when being independently produced through an organ such as Jacobs’ not-for-profit “White Snake Projects.”
“We brought in some professional animators,” corroborates the production’s CGI director, Curvin Huber, “and the quotes they gave Cerise just blew her away.”
There had to be a better way. And Jacobs found it, tapping into the talent pool at some of the Northeast’s most eminent teaching institutions. Jacob’s opera and the instructional programs at two such schools proved to be matches made on Olympus.
PermaDeath‘s cast of immortals –gods of daylight such as Apollo, Artemis, and Adonis; and gods of darkness, such as Aphrodite and the satyr Marsyas – as well as numerous “creatures,” weapons, and environments, were all vividly characterized in Jacobs’s libretto. But they still had to undergo detailed external realization. The job fell to a corps of enthusiastic students at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where a five-week for-credit course was developed centering specifically on the visual development of PermaDeath, and led by award-wining illustrator and author Mary Jane Begin, who is also a RISD adjunct professor and “senior critic.”
“I was familiar with the storytelling and the visual experience of opera,” Begin says, “but when I first talked with Cerise Jacobs, my mind exploded. This is opera, but it’s opera 2.0!”
It’s a sentiment echoed by many who enter the magnetic sway of Cerise Jacobs’s determined visions.
“With only five weeks, we had to hit the ground running!” Begin recalls. So on Day One of the PermaDeath development class, Jacobs arrived to describe the project in full detail.
“She’s 100% energy,” Begin says. “She explained the theme, the story, the characters. She explained that this had never been done before, and that we were flying by the seat of our pants to make this work. It was an act of faith that this would somehow happen.” It was a galvanizing and empowering introduction, and the payoff exceeded all expectations.
“She was able to get extraordinarily talented students giving her amazing things,” Begin reports. “They gave her more than she ever asked for” – including, incidentally, the gender of the opera’s protagonist.
“Sonny at first was going to be a male,” Begin recalls. “Then, during a crit session, students asked, ‘why can’t Sonny be a woman?'” It was a notion Jacobs instantly embraced.
“There’s a whole lot of sexism in the video game industry,” remarks composer Dan Visconti – an issue exemplified, for instance, by the recent bullying scandal known as Gamer-Gate.
Presenting the story of an ace female game player is yet another level on which PermaDeath is pushing boundaries.
“These projects have been just fantastic for Becker and RISD,” says Huber – a sentiment echoed by Mary Jane Begin. “I think it’s a win-win,” she says.
The RISD students’ final work-product was presented to the production team at a festive convocation (attended by this writer) in February 2017. It was truly extraordinary stuff – a gallery of postmodern innovation on the classical gods, some of them hyper-technologized with prosthetic, cyborg-like weapons built into their organic structures; others partially composed of stone or wood, betokening their emergence from a more ancient, natural dispensation back into which they have been partially reabsorbed. There were exquisite, painterly renderings of various otherworldly terrains – high crags, ruined temples, ravishingly lush forests, plains that stretched for fathoms into vanishing points crowned by immolating sunsets.
Now, however, these two-dimensional renderings of PermaDeath‘s universe had to be molded into three-dimensional, digitally programmed format for real time performance.
Jacobs had made a cold call to Paul Cotnoir, assistant dean of design at Becker College School of Design & Technology, proposing that, as with RISD, Becker game design students might benefit from the hands-on, practical experience of building PermaDeath. She coupled her pitch with an invitation to Cotnoir – to attend a performance of her Ouroboros Trilogy, which was then playing at Boston’s Cutler Majestic.
What Cotnoir encountered was “a transformative experience,” as Jacobs recalls his saying. “Becker College is 100% behind you. When can we start?”
Gods in Motion
The PermaDeath programming project would be helmed by Curvin Huber, a Becker professor of interactive design, and the school’s resident expert on motion-capture technology.
“We took all the RISD concept art and used it to sculpt the digital models that went into the game world,” Huber explains. But that was just a first step.
There’s much about PermaDeath‘s technical ambitions that is groundbreaking, not least the techniques Huber and his team have innovated to allow the preset CGI animations to accommodate live, real-time performance. Live, backstage stand-ins for the gods will be outfitted with motion-capture gear called FaceWare, which will allow their facial movements and expressions to be projected onto the animated figures, in precise sync with the performances of live singers.
It’s a use to which FaceWare has never been applied before, and places Huber, Jacobs and PermaDeath at the vanguard of the technology’s evolution.
“We’re taking the integration of real-time singing and acting and video animation to a whole new place,” says PermaDeath‘s composer, Dan Visconti, while Huber confides: “I’ve been on pins and needles in rehearsals, hoping we can get it all to perform the way we need it to.”
Scoring the Game
Composer Dan Visconti is himself a big video game hobbyist. He has also organized concerts featuring video game scores – such as the Grammy-nominated Austin Wintory score to the game “Journey” – with his Fifth House Ensemble.
For PermaDeath, Visconti has crafted a rich, eclectic sound world, scored for eight instrumentalists.
“Each instrument is paired with a character,” Visconti explains. “For instance, Niobe is paired with the oboe – a lot of serpentine, Middle-Eastern scales – while Apollo’s instrument, rather than the lyre, is an electric guitar. He’s a rock god! – with Jimi Hendrix chords and flashy pentatonic guitar runs.”
In addition, the aural ambiance of PermaDeath will feature extra layers of sound design, executed by a separate technician.
Bonding with the Gods
The title PermaDeath may initially strike some as baffling, if not downright redundant. But the term is a longstanding video game coinage, referring to the state into which a game avatar falls when there is no option left for his or her game-life resurrection.
In Jacobs’s opera, the term takes on additional resonance, particularly in the context of the moving evolution of relationship between Sonny and her avatar Apollo – a narrative arc climaxed by a heartrending lyric exchange between the two, featuring a beautiful quotation from the biblical Book of Ruth.
But, lest any suspect that PermaDeath‘s narrative is a downer, Jacobs is quick to note that there are numerous narrative threads that feature giddy humor.
“A lot of the CGI is tongue-in-cheek,” she says. Then there’s the putative “love scene” between Aphrodite and Adonis – two utter egoists whose romance is really a thinly veiled competition of amatory declamation. Cribbing from Elizabeth Barret Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?” the two engage in an Olympian variation on the “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” theme.
“It’s incredibly funny,” Jacobs says.
Then there’s the presence of Jacobs’ favorite character – a miniature pig named Mini-B who functions as a sort of mascot or “familiar” to the goddess Artemis. When pressed into battle, Mini-B climbs into the controls of a mechanized boar named Boris, Jacobs’ reimagining of the mythological beast that Artemis employed to try to kill Adonis.
Mini-B, however, is anything but ferocious. “He tries to mix it up but he’s a lover and not a fighter,” Jacobs explains, fondly, “which of course is a big problem in a video game.”
Adding to the fun is the fact that Jacobs’ own two pet pigs – a male named Mushu Pig (Not Yet Pork), and a female named Marzipan – make cameo appearances of a sort in PermaDeath.
“Our sound designer came to the house a little before their [the pigs’] dinner hour,” Jacobs narrates. “That’s when they’re the most vocal. They can go from bass to coloratura in a jiffy. I gave them bits of green pepper. He recorded them crunching, and he recorded their little trotters trotting on the wood floors. So listen for the pig sounds!”
Debut of the Gods
There’s no mistaking the authentic exhilaration among PermaDeath‘s stakeholders. With its technical innovations, neoteric structure, and revisions of operatic praxis, the undertaking is a remarkable testament to the pluck and visionary moxie of its creator.
Moreover, for Cerise Jacobs, PermaDeath is not an end itself; rather, she regards it as a first iteration of a production process she is determined to continue exploring. Curvin Huber has already taken a position with Jacobs’s White Snake Projects production company as director of CGI, and students at nearby Lesley University (Cambridge, Massachusetts), are set to receive credit for work on the digital development of Jacobs’ next opera, Cosmic Cowboy – tracing the galactic misadventures of a robotic probe stranded on the dark side of a distant planet.
“We’re adding a real industrial robot into the mix,” Jacobs discloses. “I have to start now in order to get it done by 2020!” But, for a brief moment, poised at the cusp of PermaDeath‘s world premiere, Jacobs reflects on the road she’s trod to get here.
“It’s been amazing,” she says. “An amazing journey.”
PermaDeath, a Video Game Opera, will be performed on three consecutive evenings – Thursday, Friday and Saturday, September 27, 28 and 29, 2018, all at 8 p.m. – at Boston’s Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre (219 Tremont Street). Tickets and additional information are available here. Doors open at 7:15 p.m. for a tutorial on how to use PermaDeath‘s companion augmented reality app, which can be downloaded from the Apple App Store or from Google Play.