White Snake Projects returns with bizarro opera-sci-fi mashup in “Cosmic Cowboy”

September 17, 2022 at 1:12 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Carami Hilaire and Daniel Moody star in White Snake Projects’ Cosmic Cowboy. Photo: Kathy Wittman

Given the versatility of the art form, it’s no surprise that opera and science fiction can mix well. They’ve actually been bedfellows for a while: Jacques Offenbach’s La voyage dans la lune, for one, was based on Jules Verne’s eponymous 1865 space travel-envisioning novel. 

But 19th-century Parisian theaters didn’t boast virtual reality goggles, iPhone apps, or video effects. White Snake Project’s Cosmic Cowboy, which had its world premiere Friday night at the Emerson Paramount Center, offered all that and more.

Written to a libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs and with a score by Elena Ruehr, the ninety-minute opera embraces, in extra-Mahlerian fashion, the cosmos. Its plot veers from the Sumerian creation myth to a dystopian future not far removed from the one depicted in the movie, Total Recall, though this one with a comet as a key plot point. Throw in costumes that could have been left over from the third act of Moonraker, a Gary Cooper-loving space probe, and more than a couple of nods to 1980s action cartoons, and you’ve got yourself a show.

However, despite the breadth of its storyline and its pop culture references, Cosmic Cowboy never veers too far from familiar operatic tropes.

The first act depicts Tiamat and Apsu, the Sumerian creation gods, and their bickering family. Conspiracies, lust for power, and patricide ensue, after which two competing camps emerge: one led by Marduk, the killer of his parents, and the other by his sister, Tia. Their video-projected millennia- and universe-spanning battles take up the short Act 2.

In Act 3, Tia meets Cooper, the personification of a probe sent to Comet 67P for the purpose of finding elements to “terraform” Mars. They fall for each other, and, after Tia and Cooper defeat Marduk in a climactic confrontation, she rides off into the rising sun to birth new galaxies.

Photo: Kathy Wittman

Yes, the plot is, in typical opera fashion, a bit daft. But, in fact, one of Cosmic Cowboy’s great assets is an ability to not take itself too seriously. Even when the libretto threatens to get heavy-handed— making explicit connections between themes of colonization and subjugation, say, or manmade ecological disaster and our present, politically-fraught moment—it wisely draws back. Less is more and the audience is, ultimately, trusted to draw its own conclusions.

Ruehr’s score is, likewise, light on its feet. The musical language of Cosmic Cowboy is broadly diatonic and rhythmically driven, full of connected set pieces. The orchestra, which includes a synthesized harpsichord, is often busily at work, though the scoring rarely interferes with the vocal writing. Ruehr’s setting of text, though, can sometimes feel haphazard, with bracingly natural parlando moments giving way unexpectedly to stilted phrasings, and for no clear reason.

Regardless, on Friday, the cast, all performing dual roles, largely embraced their moments.

Carami Hilaire sang Tiamat and Tia with resplendent, creamy tone and lots of power. There was probably too much of the last, in fact, given the coziness of the hall and the fact that she was amplified (all the singers were miked). As a result, Hilaire’s diction wasn’t always clean, though she certainly sounded regal throughout.

Countertenor Daniel Moody’s portrayals of Qingu and Cooper, though, were thrillingly done, the blend of his instrument with Hilaire’s conjuring up some winsomely eerie sonorities in their Act 3 duet.

Tyler Putnam brought a winning degree of malevolence to the one-dimensional Marduk/Commander Mard and Charles Calotta’s Mummu/Mr. Mu projected mightily. Alas, John Paul Huckle’s Apsu/General Aps sounded a touch muddy: the part sometimes seemed to sit uncomfortably low in his voice.

Chelsea Baccay, though, was marvelous as Little Tia, singing with precise enunciation and clarion tone in Act 1. And members of the Boston Children’s Chorus brought glowing warmth to their various parts, which included functioning as a kind of Greek Chorus at points during Acts 1 and 3.

Dancer Olivia Mozie is menaced in Act 3 of Cosmic Cowboy. Photo: Kathy Wittman

The evening’s staging, with its combination of tradition and technology was, fittingly, whimsical, even if it didn’t all unfold flawlessly.

As one might have expected on an opening night—especially for such a technology-heavy opera—there were hiccups galore: the VR app worked intermittently; the campy Act 2 video scenes were marred by synchronization glitches; and, periodically, supertitles froze.

Yet such was the spirit of the production that these flaws hardly detracted from the gusto of the performance or the charm of the piece. Surely, every new opera would benefit from another rehearsal or two and Cosmic Cowboy was no exception. But such are its musical and dramatic strengths that they came across regardless.

Sam Helrfich’s lively stage direction smartly utilized the video and lighting elements to create spaces on the small stage where there didn’t seem to be any—doors suddenly emerging from the ether or the universe whizzing by on a screen.

In the pit, Tian Hui Ng presided over everything with a sure hand. After some textural jumble early in Act 1, the orchestral contributions—delivered by members of Juventas New Music Ensemble—settled nicely. The Act 3 ballet sequences between Tia and Cooper (supplely danced by Olivia Mozie and Jackson Bradford) were particularly graceful. The latter featured a kind of cross between futuristic Minimalism and a hoedown. 

As such, the episodes seemed to encapsulate, musically and stylistically, so much that defines the impossible-to-pigeonhole White Snake Projects. Friday marked the company’s first return to the theater in two years and, while they’ve been busy during the pandemic developing the genre of virtual opera, Cosmic Cowboy reminded just how invigorating it is to encounter this blend of operatic tradition and innovation in person.

Cosmic Cowboy will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Emerson Paramount Center. whitesnakeprojects.org


Photo: Kathy Wittman

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