Even though she’s been based in New York for almost a decade, Beth Morrison knows Boston well. She earned a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from Boston University, and it was during her exploration of Boston’s independent theater scene that she hatched the idea of forming her own company to produce contemporary opera and music theater works. Today, Beth Morrison Projects is a driving force in the difficult task of guiding new-music projects from conception to stage, with a portfolio that includes works by Nico Muhly, David T. Little, and David Lang.
Though Morrison has brought works all over the world, from Houston to Beijing, she has yet to mount a production in her old stomping ground. But that will change, and in a big way. In September 2016, her company will open “Ouroboros,” an opera trilogy conceived by Boston’s Cerise Lim Jacobs, who wrote the librettos. Jacobs, along with her late husband, Charles M. Jacobs, was the creator of “Madame White Snake,” the 2010 Zhou Long opera premiered by Opera Boston, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. “Madame White Snake” is the middle opera of the trilogy, which will open with “Naga,” composed by Scott Wheeler, and close with “Gilgamesh” by Paola Prestini. Together, the three enact a great ritual of life, death, and rebirth.
So why is Morrison making her first entrée to Boston now? In part, of course, it has to do with the project itself. “Cerise’s hometown is Boston,” she said by phone from Los Angeles. “This is her baby, this is her vision that I’m helping to create a wonderful, imaginative production around.”
But there’s also an opportunity in Boston that’s different from other cities, she said. “In a city like New York, there are so many things that are happening all the time that it’s harder for any one thing to cut through all the noise. In Boston, there’s less noise, if you will. So it feels like a good opportunity for the trilogy to really have space to resonate in the city and hopefully capture its imagination.”
Morrison and Jacobs met in 2010, when the former was producing Vox, a New York City Opera showcase for new work. Jacobs was on the NYCO board and asked her, first, to see the inaugural production of “Madame White Snake,” and then to tour the opera in China. Which is just the sort of herculean task at which Morrison excels.
Just days before the Beijing performance, Charles Jacobs unexpectedly passed away, and plans to begin work on the trilogy were put on hold during a period of mourning for Cerise. Finally, in October 2012, “she realized that she needed to fulfill this vision they’d had together,” Morrison said. Since then, “it’s been full guns ahead.”
Those unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of opera production may think a date two years from now is a long way off. Not so, says Morrison. “To me, it’s, like, frighteningly close.” First, she and her production manager hammered out a schedule that accounted for every foreseeable detail.
An example: space for the performers on the two occasions when all three operas will be performed in a single day. “Is there enough room to have three casts at the Emerson? Probably not, so we’ll probably need some trailers. So where do we put them? It’s down to that level of nitty gritty before we even said to Cerise, OK, we can do your vision.”
Jacobs and Morrison are already planning future Boston collaborations. “Rev. 23,” a reference to a mythical next chapter of Revelation, is slated for 2017. Morrison said the composer was likely to be someone with “deep Boston roots.” They are also planning a video-game opera for 2018.
Morrison’s DIY model of opera production may take an immense amount of work, yet it offers rewards of the same magnitude.
“There’s nothing better than opening night,” she said. “Nothing. No project is less than a two-year genesis, and some of them are up to five. So there’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that go into this, and it’s an incredible amount of sacrifice. But to see it and hear it up and to know that all of that work brought you to that moment — it’s addictive. It’s kind of my heroin.”