“…words are the structure which shape the music.” Celebrating National Opera Week with Cerise Lim Jacobs

In honor of National Opera Week (Oct. 27 – Nov. 5), E. C. Schirmer explores the creative process behind writing and producing new opera. Join us as we commemorate the creativity, diligence, and hard work of the composers, librettists, and producers who bring those operas to life.

Cerise Lim Jacobs

Cerise Lim Jacobs has earned a place as one of the most creative and imaginative thinkers of our time. Born in Singapore, Jacobs eventually moved to Massachussetts where she worked as a trial partner at one of New England’s largest law firms, practicing law for more than two decades. Three years into her retirement, a song cycle written for her husband turned into her first, full-length opera Madame White Snake. The music by Zhou Long won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. In September 2017, her latest opera project REV. 23Julian Wachner, music by , premiered at the Boston New Music Festival.

What is your all-time favorite opera?

What was the first opera you ever saw live?
La Boheme

If you could choose one artist to perform one of your operas, who would it be?
Jonas Kauffman

Who is your opera role model?
Opera Philadelphia

If you could have dinner with any composer, opera or otherwise, who would it be?

Writing a libretto is a very different task than writing a play. What are the biggest differences and similarities?
A libretto has to build in room for the music – the words form the structure for the music which moves through the words, livening the dramaturgy, filling in the emotions in ways words can’t.  So an opera of 100 minutes, as example, has a libretto which is much shorter in length than a play of 100 minutes.  A libretto also has to create moments in the dramatic arc when time stands still and singers are able to sing an “aria”.  Of course, a libretto and a play are similar in that both have to be dramaturgically strong and coherent.

How does your libretto change once you begin working with the music?
The music clarifies a lot of the dramaturgy.  Usually, I cut and simplify to allow more room for the music to blossom.  Many changes are also requested by the composer which range from simple word changes to additions or deletions of many lines of text.  All changes are made collaboratively with the composer.

What unexpected challenges come up when creating a libretto?
Creation is always an ongoing process; even a “final” libretto is not ever final.  The composer, director and dramaturg all have input, so there can be conflicting opinions about character development or dramaturgy which have to be explored and resolved.  In REV. 23, for example, Julian Wachner’s opera, we decided in the midst of the piano vocal workshop that the second half of the opera was not working, so it was back to the creative drawing board for a new iteration of the end for both the words and the music.

What are your favorite themes to work with in opera?
World mythology!  I was born and raised in Singapore in a multicultural mix of ethnicities, race and religion, where Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and others celebrated each other’s important religious days.  This has imbued me with a sense of the connectedness of myth and religion across cultures, and it’s the foundation of all my work.  Ouroboros Trilogy is a trio of grand operas based on Buddhist, Christian and Hindu myths.  REV. 23 melds Judeo-Christian, Greek and Chinese history and myth to create a satirical new chapter to the Book of Revelation.

Does the music follow the words, or do the words follow the music?
For me, the words are the structure which shape the music.  So if the libretto calls for an aria, the music will be an aria; if the libretto is moving the action forward, then so will the music.  However, the product that results from this collaboration between words and music – the opera – is ultimately an organic whole in which neither the words nor the music can exist without the other.

What’s the biggest challenge in creating an opera?
I am a creator of original opera.  This means that my work is not based on the life of a person (a biopic), or on an extant book, play or movie. So for me, the biggest challenge is coming up with an original concept or story which is worthy of the time and effort of commissioning, developing, producing and presenting.

How did you come to create your first opera?
My late husband, Charles, was celebrating a big birthday.  I wanted to give him a meaningful gift.  Since opera was his passion, I determined to commission a song cycle to be performed in our living room on his birthday.  This song cycle underwent what those who’ve ever built or renovated a house know well – scope creep!  The song cycle became an opera – Madame White Snake, which premiered in 2010 in Boston and won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for its composer, Zhou Long.

What are some of the differences between your first libretto and your most recent one?
I am so much more facile in the craft of writing libretti.  I have developed enormous trust in the music, which means that my libretti are much more concise and succinct.  There is no better teacher than experience and I’ve been fortunate to have the benefit of great and talented directors, composers and dramaturgs who have given me feedback.

Are you able to really enjoy a performance of your own opera, or are you mentally editing from you seat?
I have just had my fourth opera performed and I was able to sit back and really enjoy it.  Not so much the first one.  I think I realize now that once it’s on stage, there’s nothing I can do about it – it’s all in the hands of the director, conductor and singers.

Tell us about how opera inspires or energizes you.
It’s the most impactful art form combining music, theater and that most powerful and moving instrument – the voice.  What singers can do with their voices is miraculous.  At its very best, I feel my heart opening . . .

Who is your favorite opera company to watch? To work with?
Opera Philadelphia

What do you hope for the future of opera?
I’d really like to see opera be more of our times.  Compared to theater, there’s much less acceptance of new work by audiences.  We’re lucky to be in the midst of a renaissance in new American opera.  It’s going to be a while until this movement gains full acceptance by the current opera going public.  We just need to stay the course.

For more information about Cerise Lim Jacobs and her catalogue, click here.

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