BWW Interview: To Hell and Back with Cerise Jacobs and REV. 23 at Prototype 2020

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"The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's people. Amen." And so ends the Book of Revelation, with Chapter 22, in the New Testament...or does it?

In speaking with creator-librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs, I find someone who clearly believes that too much is never enough. Thus, she decided that there was room for one more chapter after the Apocalypse of Revelation 22: REV. 23--or, at least, there was in the world of opera. (And a darkly comic vision, no less.) It is the fictional, hypothetical chapter that St. John the Divine would have written if he had gone one step further.

Vision of paradise and hell

We're talking during an orchestral rehearsal for her opera, written with composer Julian Wachner, which will have its New York debut as part of the latest iteration of Prototype: Opera-Theatre-Now Festival, on Friday January 17--not much time to get something as complex as her vision of paradise and hell (and Wachner's vibrant, complex score) moving.

Of course, this isn't the first go-around for the work--it premiered in Boston with a different director and a mostly different cast in 2017--but it is the first time for its totally new life with director James Darrah, for whom Jacobs has nothing but high praise, for his creativity and insights into the piece. "He has a totally different take on the opera, much darker, but you can't get away from the comedic elements, thank God, because new opera needs it. So much of the new works look at life through a gray and black lens."

I create new stories

In theory, Jacobs is the librettist of the work, but, in fact, she is the creator (as she sees herself in everything she does): "I create new stories. I don't adapt existing work, existing movies, plays, poems, whatever, into an opera libretto. I create a new work, with new ideas, new storyline and it's much more challenging because there isn't anything fixed about it because the world is full of possibilities when you're making something from scratch. You can tell any story."

REV. 23 was her idea and she brought Wachner and Darrah into the fold. "A lot of people feel that the music must be the most important thing in an opera," says Jacobs, "so you can get away with something as simple as [in Verdi's TRAVIATA] a woman is dying of tuberculosis, meets man, loses man, dies. The assumption is that the music will carry it and we shouldn't burden the music with too many words, too much thought.

Opera should move closer to theatre

"Whereas, I believe that opera should move closer to theatre, whose goal is storytelling and provoking thought and discussion," she avers. "Therefore, my operas are complex, because it forces the audience to do things that many traditional operas don't: to think about very layered and complex issues. Many people believe that opera cannot carry the weight of thinking and I say bulls. You don't check your brain at the door because you're watching an opera. Your brain should be on steroids."

Thought leader and visionary

Musical America--the oldest American magazine on classical music, first in print and now online--called Jacobs "a thought leader and visionary in the performing arts." I ask her what she thinks of that description.

She hedged her answer by telling me about herself--her peripatetic youth, first in British Singapore where her early education was by American Methodist missionaries and was steeped in theology. ("I wanted to be a Methodist nun, even though there was no such thing.") After anti-Chinese race riots in Singapore (by then abandoned by the British), her family escaped to Australia (with racism of a different stripe) and then to the US.

The law and opera

Here, after much sturm und drang, she eventually became an English major at university and then...a trial attorney, which she did for 20 years. She found law surprisingly closely related to the world of opera. "I found that trial work has a certain operatic, dramatic quality to it. You really know how to tell stories, have to know your audience and have to be communicative," she explained.

At this point, she began to speak with great tenderness about her late husband Charles, for helping her get started in the world of opera. He helped her create MADAME WHITE SNAKE, the Pulitzer prize-winning opera with composer Zhou Long, which started as a song cycle she created, with a music ensemble, for a landmark birthday present and expanded, piece by piece with his help.

REV. 23 commences

Charles died just before the premiere of MADAME in Beijing but she felt him pushing her forward anyway and she flew off to China for the premiere, even though she was inclined not to, before immediately heading back for her husband's funeral. Her relationship with her husband eventually brought on REV. 23, as she wondered where he was now, in death.

She laughs. "I said to myself, 'I don't think he's in paradise because, one, they'd never let him in and, two, he wouldn't want to go because the people up there would be boring. So where else could be?'" she asked herself. "He could be down there where the fun people are. And that got me thinking: 'What's paradise like--and what about the alternative?' Before I knew it, there were the bones of REV. 23. I wrote the first draft in 2014-15.

"The closest thing I knew about heaven and hell was the Book of Revelation and I thought to myself that there had to be an alternative for people like Charles--one of those who's not written in the book of life," she laughs. "So I think, 'let's figure out what's happening after Revelation 22, after the dead have risen up and you're standing at the door and they're checking off the names from the book of life and you, and Charles, are not there.

After the apocalypse

"What happens then? That's where REV. 23 comes in: the next chapter, after the apocalypse, when the four horsemen have ridden off into the sunset, when those in the book of life are happily ensconced in paradise and those who are not are, unfortunately, cast out into hell. With my diverse background, and so many elements brought together, I had the theological structure of heaven and hell, and the Archangel Michael. (NB: In the Book of Revelation, Michael leads God's armies against Satan's forces and defeats him. In the Old Testament, in the Book of Daniel, he's an advocate for the Jews.)

"Then of course we're living in hell...and who is the king of hell: Hades. So I brought in the Greek mythology with Persephone (Queen of the Underworld), who is the only being who has the mandate from the gods to pass freely between earth and hell, spending six months a year with Hades in hell, when winter is upon the earth; when she returns, she brings spring.

Breaking out of hell

Jacobs explains further, "Now Hades is in hell and Lucifer (at the end of Revelation) has been cast into the bottomless pit at the 'Amen.' They both have the goal of breaking out of hell and restore the balance of good and evil, light and darkness to the world. Their motivations are different: Lucifer wants to do this because he's been rendered irrelevant--there's no evil because it's been banished from the earth because we're living in paradise with endless summer, all good things, no evil, no pain no suffering no nothing. That what Utopia is--we examine the concept of Utopia, where human beings can be fully human.

Really comic?

I stop her explanation at this point to ask: Is this really a comic piece? It doesn't sound so to me.

She answers quickly and surely, "It's very darkly comic. A fiercely, biting, dark comedy, so you laugh but you're really crying inside because were confronting these issues that I've just described to you. But we're not doing it in the traditional, 'oh, life is just terrible because human beings have the seed of evil and original sin in them.' That's not how we do it. We do it by telling an entertaining story that explores these profound issues."

The most profound issue

Which is the most profound, I ask her?

"I think it's a question of free will and human potential: What is humanness about? What are these qualities we value in being human: courage, passion, creativity. Is that possible to value these qualities without having the opposite: torment, agony, grief and the ultimate question of evil? And are we willing to give up all that creativity passion and love so that we never have to see another starving child?

"Maybe we are selfish, to embrace the yin-yang of our humanness and accept the fact that there will always be starving children--but that we will have to work hard to try to eliminate it. Because that's who we are.

I have one last question: When the audience walks out of REV. 23, what do you want them to think about? This stops Jacobs for a minute.

Audience takeaways

"It's such a complex show. Depending on their perspective, the audience can take away so many different things. We're living in such a different world--even since it premiered in Boston in 2017--the feelings in this world are even more dire, precarious.

The anti-intellectualism, the fake news, the inability to distinguish truth from lies. I think REV. 23 reflects that so much. I think I want the audience to see it as a reflection of the chaos of the times. The book burning--a metaphor for the dire and precarious. And the choice to walk away from all of that. I hope they will see that clearly and will walk away holding on to their inner truth."

I begin thinking about those descriptors from Musical America: thought leader (her most recent opera, with Jorge Sosa, I AM A DREAMER WHO NO LONGER DREAMS, her most personal work) and visionary. And I come up with the answer to my question about whether they fit her. My answer: They're definitely right on the mark.

REV. 23 will be performed on January 17 & 18 at 8pm and January 18 at 3pm at Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 524 West 59th St., New York, NY 10019; 212.237.8005. Running time is approximately two hours, with one intermission.

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