A Brookline lawyer’s birthday gift to her husband has gotten completely out of hand. It finally gets delivered next week, when Opera Boston presents “Madame White Snake.” A project that began when Cerise Lim Jacobs decided to write a single aria to honor her opera-loving husband has turned into a fully staged opera that will head to China after making its world premiere in Boston, Feb. 26 to March 2, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
A Brookline lawyer’s birthday gift to her husband has gotten completely out of hand.
It finally gets delivered next week, when Opera Boston presents “Madame White Snake.” A project that began when Cerise Lim Jacobs decided to write a single aria to honor her opera-loving husband has turned into a fully staged opera that will head to China after making its world premiere in Boston, Feb. 26 to March 2, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
The opera, conceived and written by Jacobs and composed by Zhou Long, will be conducted by Opera Boston music director Gil Rose. The ancient Chinese myth tells the story of a snake that wishes to experience human love, transforms itself into a beautiful woman and marries — only to eventually be found out. As usual, when humans hook up with snakes, there’s trouble.
Part of the continuing growth of the company, the ambitious project will get three performances before it heads to China, where the co-commissioning Beijing Music Festival will stage performances in October. “Madame White Snake” stars soprano Ying Huang and male soprano Michael Maniaci. It’s directed by Robert Woodruff, well known to area audiences from his tenure as artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge.
Jacobs, with no prior history as a librettist, originally had one simple goal: to compose a single aria to commemorate the birthday of her husband, Charles. Many transformations later, his birthday present will actually take form as a full-length opera.
“I thought I would do something that lasted five minutes,” Jacobs says on the phone from her Brookline home. “But once I had the concept of using the myth of the white snake, it came pouring out of me.”
Jacobs has no background in writing for the operatic stage — in fact, she’s a retired trial lawyer. “But at heart I was really a failed writer,” she says. “I couldn’t get published, so I had to get a real job. But I’ve always had a wonderful preoccupation with words, and in many ways being a lawyer is just a different kind of art, writing about complex things in a concise way in order to communicate them.”
As the libretto grew, Jacobs cast about both for a company to produce it and a composer to set it to music. After much due diligence, a group of potential composers was assembled, and Jacobs and Rose eventually settled on New York–based Zhou Long, a native of China who frequently combines the idioms and instrumentation of his native country into western-style compositions. This will be Zhou’s first opera.
“When I first met Cerise to go over the libretto, we discovered we were both born in the year of the snake, 1953,” Zhou says on the phone from New York. “We both got very excited about that, and it quickly developed into a full-length opera. I’ve spent very much time with Cerise, and worked the music over and over. We’ve both made substantial revisions over the past three years.”
“Zhou Long has been like a man driven, since we started on this,” Jacobs says. “It was a monumental task. He came to stay with me, and every time I made a change he would painstakingly go over the notes and write more music.”
Jacobs’ concept of a successful libretto is informed by a desire to create language that is sophisticated and does justice to the possibilities of English. “I’ve studied many librettos,” she says. “I’ve never found operas that showed off the beauty of the English language. They were all too simplistic, and I didn’t want something banal. The music creates a kind of specialness, and I wanted to write in complex English, the way people think about things.”
Further creative adjustments were made when Woodruff began directing the action.
“It has been an eye-opening process,” Jacobs says. “I’ve been going to every rehearsal, and it has been kind of shocking to see how its been transformed in the hands of another person. Robert tried to tease out the artistic motivation before he even got started directing. When I look at the whole, I can see that Robert has taught me many things about my own libretto. It’s been a happy, wonderful collaborative process, not just between me and Zhou, but also Robert and Gil.”
And how does Charles feel about his long-overdue, and way over-budget, birthday surprise?
“He jokes about it all the time,” Jacobs says. “He tells me that if I ever want to give him another present, he’ll just say forget it. But I think he’s amazed with the work — I’m not sure he realized the power of the myth at first. But then he became really passionate about it.”
“Madame White Snake”
Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston
Feb. 26, 28, March 2