From Law to Libretto
Cerise Lim Jacobs’ opera career began with a birthday gift to her husband, Charles.
For Charles’ 75th birthday, an important milestone in Chinese culture, Jacobs wanted to commission a song, but as his birthday approached, the commission fell apart. Jacobs had no background in opera—she had recently retired from a two-decades-long law career—but at 5 a.m. one morning, her first libretto, Madame White Snake, poured out. She gifted Charles the piece, and he pushed her to fully develop it. Once completed, Jacobs convinced Opera Boston to produce it, and in 2011, Madam White Snake’s composer, Zhou Long, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music.
Despite being an opera neophyte, Jacobs didn’t stop with Madame White Snake. After Charles’s death, she fulfilled their shared vision of turning Madame White Snake into a three-part work, the Ouroboros Trilogy. Inspired by Jacobs’ childhood watching Chinese street operas, they had wanted it to be performed all in one day, and in 2016 in Boston, it was.
After the completion of the Ouroboros Trilogy, Jacobs continued to write librettos and founded her own opera company, White Snake Projects. White Snake Projects has received multiple grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Jacobs shares how White Snake Projects uses art to defy stereotypes, challenge the status quo, and create space for underserved and underrepresented groups.
OPERA AS ACTIVISM
My work has really been defined by the fact that I am an immigrant. I came to America when I was 20 with a fully formed ethnic and cultural identity. I did not come as a child, where I could assimilate easily. I think the feeling of being an outsider, of not having the same kind of support systems as someone who has been born and grown up here, has really colored the activism that White Snake Projects does.
As an outsider, I know what it’s like not to belong, and that’s why we continue to try to make space for people who are not included in mainstream America. That includes Asian Americans, and other people of color. I grew up in Singapore. It was what they call a benign totalitarian state. The sense of free thinking and free speech was suppressed. It was only by coming to America that I began to learn for the first time in law school about the American Constitution and First Amendment rights. I think that these American values, which I’ve slowly started to internalize, have driven me to create a company that is committed to uplifting many marginalized voices who would otherwise not be heard.
For a lot of successful Asian American opera creators, there is always the danger of being pigeonholed as only being able to write Asian-inflected pieces. That’s not true. Of course it isn’t, because ultimately, we are part of American culture. There is also this perpetuation of negative stereotypes through the traditional rep. There’s a lot of discussion about the negative stereotyping in Madame Butterfly and Turandot. That’s the reason why White Snake Projects exists, because we want to show a different side—not just for Asian Americans, but for women, for any person of color.
"I think that these American values, which I’ve slowly started to internalize, have driven me to create a company that is committed to uplifting many marginalized voices who would otherwise not be heard."
Right now, for instance, I am going to be premiering the third in what I have called the Pandemic Trilogy. During the pandemic, we pivoted to online programming, and we invented an audio plugin called Tutti Remote, which manages latency so that singers can sing synchronously from remote locations. We also work in Unreal Engine [a game platform used for the development of video games]. Through Unreal, we are able to place remote singers into the same 3D environments so they appear to be in the same space when they’re really all across the country.
The first of the Pandemic Trilogy, which has been selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in its archives, is called Alice in the Pandemic, and it explores economic disparity. The pandemic exposed these deep fissures as to who’s privileged to shelter in place and who has to be on the frontlines because they just simply cannot afford to stop working.
In May, we premiered the second of the Pandemic Trilogy, Death by Life, which is a response to the murder of George Floyd. This piece explores one of the end points of racialized policing—long-term, mass incarceration. The texts were written by incarcerated writers and set to music by five Black composers to create an original opera.
In September, we’re going to premiere the final leg of the trilogy, and it’s called A Survivor’s Odyssey. It explores what the WHO [World Health Organization] has called “the shadow pandemic,” which is a surge in intimate partner violence during the pandemic. It’s now become an international health crisis, though you don’t hear much about it in mainstream press because it’s viewed as a women’s issue and therefore not that important.
Of course, opera reflects all these prejudices. One of the things that we’re doing with A Survivor’s Odyssey, which looks at intimate partner violence, rape, domestic violence through the lens of Homer’s Odyssey, is to explore how the male gaze shapes art and culture, something that then becomes imbued into men and women. So women are now defined by that male gaze: submissive, easily victimized, not too intellectual, not entrepreneurial, not strong, etc. And men are defined by notions of masculinity which are toxic.
We run a series of forums in partnership with community groups to contextualize our operas and create an activist ecosystem in which they live. One of these forums for A Survivor’s Odyssey examines how opera often perpetuates the worst, most extreme [version] of intimate partner violence: femicide. Think of Pagliacci when that clown kills his wife and everybody says, “Oh, my God. The poor man. She shouldn’t have cheated on him. Aww.” Think of Othello, often hailed as a tragic hero with a fatal flaw. Think of Lucia [in Lucia di Lammermoor] who is raped by her husband and then kills him. I found when I was working on Death by Life that there is a large correlation between women who are incarcerated and women who are [domestic abuse] survivors, because the women are oftentimes incarcerated for killing their abusers.
CENTERING ASIAN AMERICAN VOICES
Actively seeking out more talented Asian American creators is a key to centering Asian American voices. Asian Americans, often because of our cultural heritage, don’t put ourselves front and center. So there has to be a process of actively seeking out and then nurturing and cultivating creators so that they feel safe enough to express and release their full creativity. That’s something that we’ve tried to do at White Snake Projects, and I think the greater arts community needs to engage in that. You know that old saying, “Squeaky wheels get all the oil”? We are not squeaky wheels, and we are oftentimes overlooked because a lot of people view us as white-adjacent. But when it comes time to handing out the benefits of being white, we are then immediately people of color.
One of the shows that we are developing right now is a show on Asian American heritage and identity stereotypes. We’re getting together teams of Asian American writers and composers, and they’re each going to compose a scene that explores one aspect of being an Asian American that is important to them, so that we can present a rounded picture of who we are to our audiences. We’re not just doctors, lawyers, computer scientists, and mathematicians. We’re artists. We’re fun-loving. We’re young, we’re old.
The idea for this Asian-American-centered opera is a direct response to anti-Asian hate. Most people think that there is not much any single individual can do to change things, but if they don’t try, if everybody has that attitude, nobody will do anything. We [at White Snake Projects] have a platform to be able to amplify voices for or against issues, and in the case of anti-Asian hate, it’s something that strikes particularly close to home. There was no question in my mind, that [after the March 2021 murder of six Asian American women in Atlanta] we were going to use our platform and artmaking to address this. We’re not going to do it didactically, because I’m not going to get up and say, “Anti-Asian hate is wrong.” No. We’re going to do it through art, which means that it’s going to be storytelling. It’s going to be showing through beauty, through creativity, through innovation that we have these unseen strengths and that we are able to create beauty out of this ugliness.
I hope that [White Snake Projects] is an example that Asian Americans can create and innovate, because the work that White Snake Projects does is not part of the traditional repertory. We not only create original work with a social justice emphasis, but we also invent technology. During the pandemic, we created the program that enables us to produce fully realized shows live online. I think that is an exploding of the myth that we are not creative, that we are not innovative, that we are somehow all destined to be doctors, lawyers, or accountants, and that we are the model minority. In order to do the work that White Snake Projects does, we really have to be myth busters, we really have to be entrepreneurial, and we really have to be disruptive to the status quo—and that is so not part of the stereotype.