Opera Review

Video-game opera ‘PermaDeath’ comes to the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre

Many scenes in “Permadeath” take place within an online role-playing game.
Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films
Many scenes in “Permadeath” take place within an online role-playing game.

The union of opera and video games isn’t a new development. “Final Fantasy VI,” (1994), “Parasite Eve” (1998), and “Hitman: Blood Money” (2006) are just a few of the games on the market that feature scenes at the opera. Opera about video games or including video games, however, is new territory, and with the premiere of video-game opera “PermaDeath” Thursday evening, local impresario and librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs launched perhaps her most technologically ambitious production to date, at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre.

The size and breadth of the team listed in the program book spoke to the vast scope of the White Snake Projects production. Many scenes take place within an unnamed multiplayer online role-playing game where characters are avatars of Greek mythological figures. The in-game concept art and animation for these scenes were created by a host of partners from Becker College, Rhode Island School of Design, and Lesley University, and the animated action played out on a large screen incorporated into the set. 

To make the animated characters sing in real time, two singers sang along with the score offstage while wearing motion-capture masks, and the animated lips moving did almost match the singing of the cast onstage. In addition, protagonist Sonny is losing the use of her limbs to ALS, and accordingly Cape Cod-based nonprofit Compassionate Care ALS was engaged as a community partner.


But all those features can’t stand in for an engaging, cohesive story and score, with strong singers and staging to bring it to life. “PermaDeath” lacks many of these essentials.

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The cast of young talent was the best of these necessities, all putting up fine showings. Many were inaudible during their characters’ animated scenes, when the singers projected from behind open doorways in Zane Pihlstrom’s luminous grid set. The story tried to do too much in its 100-some minutes. The main arc focuses on professional gamer Sonny’s declining health, and the desire of her avatar, Apollo, to enter the Tournament of Death in pursuit of the cash prize, which will provide for Sonny’s care once she can’t game anymore. Besides that, a few mythological rivalries are given their own battle scenes as well, which allowed more animation spots but destabilized the narrative.

Many questions arose and remained unanswered; we know the wheelchair-bound Sonny (sung with crisp excellence by soprano Maggie Finnegan) controls the burly, charismatic avatar Apollo (baritone Josh Quinn), but we don’t know to what extent Apollo can think for himself. Is Apollo an artificial intelligence, or a more daring facet of Sonny’s personality? Was the well-heeled woman in the yellow coat (a formidable Amy Shoremount-Obra) actually the hot-tempered Artemis, or was she the human behind the controller? Were the avatars of Adonis and Aphrodite (mezzo-sopranos Sarah Coit and Shirin Eskandani) singing each other a flowery love duet because the mythological canon demanded it, or because the humans behind the avatars were into each other? We never find out.

Jacobs’s libretto, which was co-written with her gamer son Pirate Epstein, vacillated between outdated, almost unsingable lingo (“We owned them so hard!”) and devices familiar from her other libretti: myth references, lists of big words, and extended, sometimes questionable metaphors. Dan Visconti’s score swerved from mood to mood with the text, feeling like it was racing to keep up. The composer did squeeze in some intriguing game-soundtrack-esque themes, with one reminiscent of a peaceful village, another a boss fight. The final scene between Sonny and Apollo, on open, haunting harmonies with lyrics from the Book of Ruth, was the opera’s most cohesive.

I want to believe that there is a compelling story somewhere 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. But to find that, this opera is going to require extensive debugging. For now, its replay value is low.


 At Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre,Sept. 27. Repeats Sept. 28-29.

Zoë Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.