“What would you do given the opportunity to live on Mars?” is a question that probably doesn’t come up in most opera rehearsal rooms. But for Boston-based composer and librettist Elena Ruehr and Cerise Lim Jacobs, the creative team behind White Snake Projects’ “Cosmic Cowboy,” the question is an open matter of debate.
“I would say there’s no people to colonize on Mars . . . but she’s like, ‘but we don’t know what’s alive on Mars,’” said Ruehr, gesturing to Jacobs in a recent Zoom interview during a “Cowboy” tech rehearsal.
“I mean, how do you define life, when you’re talking about alien life?” said Jacobs, a former lawyer who founded White Snake in her retirement and became its driving force. “There may not be life as we define life, but there may be life!”
This weekend, “Cosmic Cowboy” will debut in front of a live audience at the Emerson Paramount Center’s Robert J. Orchard Stage after several years of postponements and setbacks. “Cowboy” is a space opera, literally: In its 90 minutes, it gallops across eons, from the creation of the universe by the Sumerian gods Tiamat and Apsu to the distant future, where Tiamat’s daughter Tia meets and falls in love with a sentient robotic probe.
Mythology and folk tales have long been the lodestone of Jacobs’s creative process, a fascination she traces to her childhood in Singapore where she was immersed in Malay, Indian, and European cultural influences as well as her family’s Chinese background. “[Singaporeans] celebrated everyone’s holidays,” she said. “I realized how similar all these cultural myths were, how they cross borders and ethnicities.” Around 2017, several years after she’d started working in opera, she said someone asked her if she’d been influenced by Joseph Campbell, whose 1949 book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” pointed out cross-cultural parallels between stories of the archetypal hero’s journey. Her response: “Who is he?”
The premiere was originally slotted for 2019, said Jacobs, but was pushed back a year after then-President Donald J. Trump announced in 2017 he would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program. In response, Jacobs (who as a native of Singapore spent her early years under British colonial rule) teamed up with Mexican-born composer Jorge Sosa for the poignant “I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams.”
“Cowboy” was rescheduled for fall 2020, but the pandemic sent live performances into limbo, and Jacobs’s network of singers, set designers, stage managers, and more shrunk drastically.
“There has been a mass exodus of personnel from performing arts during the shutdown, because there was simply no work for them,” said Jacobs. “I have singers who retrained . . . and now they work for Google.” The tenor who was cast in the role of Vizier Mummu and Mr. Mu went to work for “this computer company,” while another became a stay-at-home parent. “The number of career changes was endless.”
During its hiatus from live performances, White Snake presented three new online operas that allowed performers to participate from home thanks to 3-D virtual sets through computer graphics tool Unreal Engine and low-delay live audio through Tutti Remote, an audio plug-in commissioned by Jacobs. The company is continuing those presentations in 2023 with a program of operatic vignettes on the theme of Asian-American identity, titled “Fractured Mosaics,” and a reimagining of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.” But the possibility of presenting “Cosmic Cowboy” as an online opera never arose, said Jacobs. “All our digital operas were written for the small-screen format.”
Apart from the cast, little changed about the music and libretto of “Cosmic Cowboy” during the pandemic. White Snake has “become even more committed to being an activist opera company,” said Jacobs. But even in its early drafts, “Cosmic Cowboy” explored themes of colonization and the conflict between order and chaos, a dichotomy present in many world mythologies that has often been conflated with good vs. evil.
Tiamat is the mother of creation, Jacobs explained. “[She] is the ocean, and Apsu, her consort, is a river, and their mating creates the universe.” I responded that in all the modern depictions of Tiamat I’ve seen, including her prominent appearance in the “Dungeons and Dragons” universe, she represents a primordial evil force, and Jacobs nodded. “She’s actually amoral! Creation is neither good nor evil, but she is chaotic. Because the creative process is chaotic.”
“There’s sort of a feminist story in [the opera], which I really appreciate,” said Ruehr. “I’m also a sci-fi weirdo . . . so I had a lot of fun writing it.” In creating the music, Ruehr tried to incorporate elements she referred to as “timeless,” using one form of minor scale to represent the past and another to evoke the future.
Now everyone just has to make it to the stage without getting COVID, said Jacobs. “Honestly, it’s my greatest nightmare, not being able to be there to open the show!”
At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Emerson Paramount Center. Sept. 16-18. www.whitesnakeprojects.org