Q&A: Cerise Jacobs On PermaDeath, A Video Game Opera

By Francisco Salazar

How do you make a younger audience go to the opera?

That was the question that always haunted writer Cerise Jacobs through the years as she wrote numerous librettos and operas. It always confounded her that her son never showed interest in the works she created. But it was ultimately this question that inspired her to make the first video game opera in history through her White Snake Projects company.

Jacobs, who has established herself as a librettist in modern day opera, spoke to OperaWire about the creative process and the challenges of undertaking this ambitious new project.

OperaWire: How did this project come about?

Cerise Jacobs: For a long time opera’s audience has been aging and I’m always thinking of ways to get a new audience. And it impacted me when my son was very reluctant to not just go to the opera but to see my operas, the ones that I write. So I wondered what it would take for my son and his friends to go see an opera with me. Well he said, “I kind of like the opera in ‘The Fifth Element.'” I love that blue alien singing in this processed coloratura and so I thought that’s an idea and then at the very same time he founded a new indie video game company and we were creating our first game. We got hooked up with a composer and they started working on the music for the game. So one thing led to the other and someone said to me, “Why don’t you make a video game opera?” And I thought, “Yeah, why don’t I?” And that is why I made it.

OW: Why do you think this will get new audiences interested in opera?

CJ: You can’t dress an old opera in new clothes. It just doesn’t work. You have to talk to young people in their own terms and video games are the fastest growing form of entertainment in the world, including the United States. It’s an 8 or 10 billion dollar industry and it’s outstripped every other form of entertainment including TV, film, and music. And most people nowadays literally bond with their phones. So to ask them to separate from this phone and everything they use on it is very traumatic for them. So I wanted to meet them on their own terms in a language that they understood.

OW: What kind of research did you do for this?

CJ: It was very interesting because my son took me on a tour of World of Warcraft because he was a huge world of Warcraft fan. He and his friends would play for hours every night. It was like the marvel of people playing on the internet.  I would watch them play and I would become familiar with all these different kinds of things you could see and be. It struck me like this is the kind of fantasy world that we love in terms of myths and legends that are made up. It’s always a battle between good and evil. And it’s always a quest for the holy grail or something else but its always a quest. On the way, you meet with trials and tribulations and you’re tested. And that is the fundamental part of the game and it was so easy to write once I understood it.

OW: What was the biggest challenge of making this video game opera?

CJ: It’s so experimental. If I had known how experimental it is and how much we are pushing the boundaries of even video game technology, I don’t know if I would have started. But here we are. One of the biggest challenges is that there were several aspects that we had to work on simultaneously and because we are a very small company we had to solve a number of financial issues that took part of my time away from my work. So I went out and got a quote of all the things I wanted to do and the quote was so astronomical that I couldn’t go there. But that’s when I realized that there are so many untapped resources in local community colleges and universities. So I put together a consortium of artistic and technical partners. So I got Rhode School of Design and they did all the concept art for the characters and the environments and they handed it off to Becker College, which is my tech partner. What these schools did was to program these things into their curriculum so they could do the work in class. That’s how we managed to convert all the 2D concept art into 3D models. Then the students textured them and animated them.

Then there was, of course, the faces and we used a program called Faceware. Faceware is a post-production tool like the ones they use for “Planet of the Apes.” That’s what we’re using but differently because everything you see in a movie is done in post-production but with us, the animation of the face is in real time.  When the singers sing, their lips and face motions are captured in real time. It’s transmitted to the avatar that is projected on the screen so the avatar lip-synchs in real time. This will be the first time it is done and it has been challenging.

OW: How do you combine the music with the animation?

CJ: Because it’s an opera and not a film, the composer had to compose first and then we took that music and the animators worked with already composed music. It’s a back and forth between the animators and composer and that meant recomposing music.

We’ve had a lot of discussion about how much live action versus CGI we have. What we don’t want is an animated experience with animated characters lip-synching to live music. I wanted the right balance between the singers being themselves on stage and then transitioning when its appropriate to being a CGI character. Those transitions were important to make sure we got what we wanted. It was a huge factor in how the opera would be staged and when we would move back and forth from one world to the next.

OW: Is the music continuous and what kind of music can we expect?

CJ: Yes. If you close your eyes and never look at the stage you would think it was just a fun and contemporary opera. It meets all the so-called operatic conventions with arias and it goes right throw with no stoppage. We have a very small live orchestra of musicians and it is reduced because the composer realized that he needed to make room for electronics so we have a sound design which is an electronic musical line. The person playing these is a pit musician and the conductor will conduct the electronic engineer as if it were a normal instrument. The electronic overlay will be continuous and it will add different ambient sounds. The singing will be acoustic because that is something I am always looking for.

OW: How do you directly interact within the work?

CJ: When I conceptualized this, we had a lot of ideas about direct audience participation. We found that it was one of the hardest things to achieve because the only way they could participate was through their smartphones and we had a lot of ideas that included voting systems as well as shoot projectiles at the screen. But we found it was distracting with the lighting and it would hurt the projection screen that we will be using. And other practical things would also be hurt by lit smartphones. It would be chaos. But we developed an augmented reality app where you can learn about the game and characters with the avatars popping up in 3D. And there will also be a map of the world that they inhabit.

OW: How do you hope to expand the work and present it afterward?

CJ: What we hope is that it will have a touring life because it is so unique. Its the first of its kind and we hope we can present it in different festivals like BAM and others. So we are going to edit a video to show to different companies and festivals.

OW: What were the biggest lessons you learned and if you could do it again what would you do differently?

CJ: I learned that you have to be persistent because I cannot tell you how much people said no and it’s crazy and impossible. I had the most important thing and that was to surround myself with great people who believed and who had the expertise to problem solve together. Everyone who worked on it was in it and wanted to do it. And if I had to do it again I would have started earlier because you never have enough time.


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