Perhaps the combination of video games and opera isn’t the first pairing that comes to mind. For Cerise Lim Jacobs—creator of the new multimedia Greek mythology-influenced PermaDeath, an opera about characters grappling with mortality in their lives and in a massive online game—that perceived dissonance is electrifying. Born in Singapore, she graduated from Harvard Law, worked as an attorney for 20 years and served as a federal prosecutor in Boston for five. After retiring, she created White Snake Projects, a startup that develops new operas infused with social activism. We logged in with Lim Jacobs before the world premiere on Sept. 27 at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre.
What was your inspiration for the show? Manifold. It was a happy confluence of events. I always believed that when I started White Snake Projects, I wanted to ensure that we actually met a younger audience on their own terms. In other words, that we’re not dressing up a 19th-century piece in 21st-century garments, you know? And of course, when you look around you, young people nowadays are literally tethered to their smartphones. And they’re always playing video games. … And at that time, my son had just started his own indie game company. So being a Neanderthal who really does not belong in the 21st century, I was just fascinated by this whole thing. And together with my son Pirate, I delved into researching video games and found to my surprise that hardcore video games, which of course have such a terrible reputation as being quite savage and violent—and in fact a lot of them are—but they also are so much grounded in mythology, which has been a lifelong passion of mine.
How does the opera interact with death? The major point of connection is the fact that the gamer Sonny, she’s been diagnosed with ALS, which is a death sentence. Most people diagnosed with ALS die within two years of the diagnosis. So here is this young 20-something champion tournament gamer who now has to work through the fact that death is literally around the corner knocking on the door. … And her gaming avatar, Apollo, is very worried for how Sonny is going to pay for end-of-life care because she’s practically unable to play in tournaments and that’s the way she makes her living. So he volunteers to enter a tournament of death, and the prize is $3 million. And the reason why there’s such a big prize is because in the tournament, when an avatar is killed, it never rises again. So here we have this confluence of the physical Sonny and the manifestation of her spirit self, they both are facing permanent death.
Do people have a skewed perception of what death is? You know, I thought about that a lot, particularly in relation to the recent shooting [in Jacksonville]. I was so shocked and saddened—always, every time there is a mass shooting—but this time it’s at a video game tournament. … I think that there may be a little bit of a skewed perspective. What we have done in the show and in the libretto and also in the production is to try to drive the point home. Because we see Marsyas and the pain and suffering he undergoes when Apollo kills him by flaying him alive—that’s from the Greek mythology. So it’s not just that he dies and he respawns. There is real pain. Even when he dies impermanently. And when Niobe has her 14 children killed over and over again, each time they are killed she grieves. She’s a mother who has lost her children, and we see her grief through her avatar. The avatars grieve. So I’m trying to bring home the point that even when you think it’s just a video game, you must never forget that death is a reality.
Why did you decide to develop a companion phone app to go along with the show? I’ve always wanted White Snake Projects to be part of the 21st century and to take away the feeling that people have when they hear the word “opera.” That somehow it’s fusty-musty, fuddy-duddy. You can’t help yourself, that’s what you think. You can admit that. [Laughs.] So one of the things I’ve tried to do is to develop an app that would be a signature of who we are as a company. And of course PermaDeath is a wonderful way to use the app. But I started developing the app last year so that you could actually look at the front and back covers of our program book and the entire program book would animate. It would come to life when you look at it through your phone. It’s an augmented reality app, kind of like a Pokémon app. So for PermaDeath what we do is—because there are all these different characters which are based on Greek mythology and I don’t expect young people to know it in order to enjoy the story—if you want to, you can learn about the characters, their lore, their background. If you download the app and look at a trigger, the character actually springs out in augmented reality as a 3D figure. It’s animated, so it moves and breathes and does a few moves and there’s a backstory on it. You can explore the environment that it lives in, etc. And, of course, as our signature thing, you look at the back and front covers of our program book and that animates to life, the whole program book comes to life.
Is there a point during the show when the audience is supposed to use the app? There was. This show has been in R&D for a couple of years now with Becker College—they are a wonderful video game school out in Worcester—and they’re my tech partner and it’s them who developed all of this with me. So all the computer-generated images, the animations, the app were all done with Becker College. And RISD did all the 2D concept art, and Lesley University did the animation as well. But the point is that we did a lot of R&D and we were unable to solve the problem of how you control the audience. In other words, if you signal them, like through a vibrating phone, that it’s time to look at the stage through your phone, then how do you ensure that when the event—or whatever it is that they’re looking at—is over, that everyone puts their phone away so you don’t have a thousand cellphones in the theater lit up because it’s very distracting. The ambient light really affects the CGI on the stage and also disturbs older patrons who may not want to use their smartphones. So we couldn’t figure that out because whenever you let people use their phone in a theater, there are always gonna be issues.
Since technology is such a stressor, how do you unwind? The old-fashioned way. I read real books. And I care for my animals. I have a large menagerie of animals. I have four rescue dogs, two piglets, 25 chickens. I do a lot of work with animals and with my garden, which is one of my passions in life as well. And I cook and I drink wonderful wine, what can I say. [Laughs.] Though, I’m not a lush yet.