Opera and video games are two genres that seem to be as far away from each other as possible. But composer Dan Visconti and co-creator and librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs have bridged the divide with their new work, PermaDeath. They claim that PermaDeath is the world’s first “videogame opera”—a designation that acknowledges that PermaDeath is both an opera about video game players, and an opera in which video game characters express themselves and interact using operatic conventions. A production of Jacobs’s White Snakes Projects, PermaDeath is a dark, exciting, and intermittently brilliant work.
[The] story is interspersed with lengthy vignettes set in the video game’s mythological world, and it is in these segments that PermaDeath does something remarkable. On stage, the vignettes comprise a mix of live action, featuring the singers, and a big-screen projection of their “avatars,” the animated videogame characters created using 3D modeling and animation software…a powerful synergy arises from combining videogame animation with opera. After all, both revel in an exaggerated and otherworldly beauty; neither has a completely comfortable relationship with realism.
Composer Visconti seems inspired by this chimerism. He supports his singers with a modern, eclectic sound palette. Like video games themselves, which often construct their stories from a potpourri of influences, Visconti utilizes a wide range of tonal languages, from “ancient” modal laments to more contemporary atonal writing. He instinctively finds the right balance between the weird and familiar. Visconti’s musical adventurism mirrors the careening vignettes onstage… The successful mash-up of different forms owed much to conductor Daniela Candillari’s leadership in the pit. Thanks to Candillari’s even-keeled but dynamic conducting, the disparate vignettes and settings had a sense of flow and inevitability, like the dream-logic of mythology.
Visconti and Jacobs have made an exciting new work brimming with new ideas and possibilities. It would be interesting to see if the “videogame opera” genre gains new additions after this work.
—Opera News, David Shengold (December 2018)
With advancements in technology, video games now have the capacity to engage players in ways that traditional forms of storytelling cannot. Game avatars, with their freedom of motion, even become extensions of the self, and death is less an end than a temporary frustration as the player tries to conquer a level or defeat an enemy.
But in Dan Visconti’s PermaDeath, a new opera presented by White Snake Projects in its world premiere Thursday night at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, game deaths are elevated into the realm of human tragedy.
Cerise Jacobs’ slick libretto tells a convincing and engaging tale of friendship and loss through eight scenes that span one hundred minutes. Visconti’s score blends ear-tingling sonorities associated with avant-garde music with rock and folk influences. Through sparse textures, thorny dissonances, and driving rhythms that would be at home in a jug band jamboree, Visconti weaves musical tapestries that are equal parts Webern, Morton Feldman, and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
The music to PermaDeath is also sweeping and intimate. Melodies are broad and seem to unfold endlessly, occasionally breaking out into bluesy strains and cha-cha rhythms. As a whole, the themes have the impact and direct emotional appeal of a film or video game score—an apt fit for such an operatic project. Hopefully, this eclectic mix of old and new art forms will yield similarly intriguing future projects.
—Boston Classical Review, Aaron Keebaugh (September 2018)
Dan Visconti’s score swerved from mood to mood with the text, feeling like it was racing to keep up. The final scene between Sonny and Apollo, on open, haunting harmonies with lyrics from the Book of Ruth, was the opera’s most cohesive.
There is a compelling story within PermaDeath: the feelings of a young person struggling with impending mortality and coping through video games, or an exploration of how virtual fantasy worlds connect humans who would never otherwise interact.
—The Boston Globe, Zoe Madonna (September 2018)
It’s best to consider PermaDeath as a vehicle for inventive music and staging. Visconti’s score rendered the digital world with a spare but expressive, and often satisfying orchestra (led by Daniela Candillari). Here, as in video games, music is borrowed from folk traditions and invents a language unique to this digitally created world. Much of it is pleasant enough, but when it hits home, it is penetrating: Visconti’s setting of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43 (How do I love thee? Let me count the ways) for two sopranos is a standalone masterpiece. Life in the real world is far less lush, dipping into a hearty, yet atonal, palette. Here, Visconti manages to be equally playful and expressive: arias and ensembles tend toward angular soundscape, but always in service of the libretto.
—The Boston Musical Intelligencer, Sudeep Igarwala (September 2018)