Cold Mountain, a Civil War love story, was Charles Frazier’s first novel. It sold roughly three million copies and won the National Book Award in 1997. The 2003 movie, starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renée Zellweger, was nominated for seven Academy Awards, with Zellweger winning for Best Supporting Actress. On August 1, Cold Mountain the opera will make its world premiere at Santa Fe’s striking Crosby Theatre. Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Jennifer Higdon wrote the score, her first opera.
For artists like Higdon, the Santa Fe Opera is an artistic incubator. The company, founded by John Crosby in 1956, has a tradition of supporting new works. Over the years, SFO has commissioned 14 new operas and presented 44 American premieres.
The novel Cold Mountain was based on a family story Frazier heard as a child about his great-great-uncle William Pinkney Inman, a Confederate soldier who deserted near the end of the Civil War. The novel offers two parallel plot strands. One is the fictional soldier’s odyssey as he flees on foot from a military hospital, desperate to return to his home at Cold Mountain, North Carolina, where he has left behind Ada, the woman he loves. Ada has battles of her own as she struggles to survive on a farm she has no experience running, along with the everyday threats faced by a woman living in a lawless community emptied by war of good men.
For Higdon, who looked long and hard for a fitting subject for her first opera, the landscape and personalities of Frazier’s novel felt like home. “I grew up on the Tennessee side of the mountain,” she says, “60 miles away as the crow flies.” It was she who first approached Frazier about creating an opera from his novel, after which she chose Gene Scheer who adapted the novel Moby-Dick for a highly acclaimed 2010 opera by Jake Heggie) to write the libretto. She contacted Charles MacKay, the general director of the Santa Fe Opera, about producing her work. (The new opera is a co-commission; after premiering in Santa Fe, it will open in subsequent seasons at Opera Philadelphia and the Minnesota Opera.)
Higdon’s Pulitzer came in 2010, for her Violin Concerto, and she won a Grammy that same year for her Percussion Concerto. She has been commissioned to create works for the Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and Cleveland orchestras and the London Philharmonic—to name a few.
At a presentation at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum in March, Higdon, Frazier, Scheer, and the stage director, Leonard Foglia, gathered to talk to an audience about the process of turning a novel (and movie) into an opera. Excerpts of Higdon’s new music were also performed by some of the singers who will be appearing in Santa Fe. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and former SFO apprentice Emily Fons, taking on the roles Kidman and Zellweger played in the movie, were there, although the singer playing Jude Law’s part, heartthrob baritone Nathan Gunn, was represented by his understudy.
Higdon told the audience that after reading Frazier’s novel three or four times, she began to keep musical notebooks for each of the characters. Inman, she imagined, was a warrior made hollow by the atrocities he had witnessed and suffered. She set out to create a sound that might illustrate that feeling. As a first-time opera composer, she had no idea that these characters would begin to live in her head. “They don’t go away,” she told the Guggenheim audience. “They would tell me what kind of music they needed.”
“Opera is a completely different and new challenge, like none other I’ve encountered,” she says. “It’s everything that orchestral music is, but a thousand times more intense.”
“I am frequently told that my music sounds American,” she says. “I’m not sure what that means, but in the case of this opera, there is a mountain flavor in the music itself, which draws upon a bluegrass and traditional folk world.”
As she worked on the material, Higdon tried some of the music out on singers at the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia, the renowned conservatory where she teaches composition. “She had a laboratory there with some of the finest vocal students in the country,” says MacKay. “Very often, composers work in isolation: They don’t know how the music is going to fit a voice; they write in a more instrumental way. Jen- nifer took the time to find the right way to work with voices. She would ask the students how the music felt.”
Although MacKay and a few New Yorkers were privileged enough to hear a vocal preview in March, even the composer herself had not had an opportunity to hear the orchestral music she composed. “She can hear it in her head,” MacKay says. “The rest of us are very much looking forward to the first orchestra rehearsal on July 1.”
Michael Wade Simpson is the editor of culturevulture.net, an arts website.
OPERA HIGH NOTES
Events in Santa Fe planned around the opening of Cold Mountain include a Civil War film series, a book club, chamber music concerts featuring music by Higdon, and a symposium at the New Mexico History Museum, July 31–August 2, which will feature discussions with historians and academics, a session with Frazier, Higdon, Scheer, and other members of the creative team, and a concert of Civil War songs and stories. To register or for information about these events, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on this season’s performances and events and to buy tickets, visit santafeopera.org or call (800) 280-4654.
If Cold Mountain is a fraught romance in a war-torn American countryside, Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment is at the other end of the emotional spectrum, according to Charles MacKay, general director of the Santa Fe Opera. “It’s light, fun, a little silly, and has delicious melodies.” There’s a famous aria sung by the leading tenor where he is called upon to hit nine high C’s. If you’re not a big operagoer but you want something with dazzling notes, a heartfelt love story, and a lot of humor, MacKay advises that this is the one to see. Returning star Alek Shrader will be aiming for those high notes while Anna Christy, who made SFO audiences giggle in 2011’s The Last Savage, will take the leading role. July 3–August 29
Verdi’s Rigoletto has some of the most familiar opera music ever written, including the aria “La Donna è Mobile,” but “it’s a really dark story,” MacKay says. A duke known for having his way with all the women of his court steals away with the beloved daughter of Rigoletto, the court jester. Bryan Hymel, who plays the duke, is one of the top tenors in the world, according to MacKay, while the singer taking on the title role, Quinn Kelsey, is being hailed as one of the great Verdi baritones of this era. July 4–August 28
Salome, by Richard Strauss, is based on the Oscar Wilde play. The controversial Irish poet exulted in the dramatic conflagration of religion, sex, and murder within the biblical saga of King Herod, Princess Salome, and Saint John the Baptist. Known for the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which left the soprano nude at the feet of her stepfather, Strauss’ 1905 opera was influenced by Sigmund Freud’s theories, which were just coming into prominence: The veils were like layers of Salome’s personality being peeled away. Alex Penda, who was memorable in last summer’s Fidelio, will take the leading role. “The opera is a masterpiece in every way,” MacKay says. “John Crosby, who founded the Santa Fe Opera, presented a Strauss opera every summer for 45 years, and Salome was his favorite. We have Strauss in our DNA here.” July 18–August 27
La Finta Giardiniera is early Mozart, a lesser-known work written when the composer was 18 but already exhibiting the brilliance that would come to fruition in his comic operas, Così Fan Tutte and The Marriage of Figaro. Translated as The Phony Gardener, the opera is filled with typical Mozartian plot devices such as double identities and a cross-dressing mezzo-soprano. Love may be driving the characters in this opera crazy, but the music is a pure delight, according to MacKay. Santa Fe Opera regulars Heidi Stober, Susanna Phillips, William Burden, and Joshua Hopkins will join Laura Tatulescu, Cecelia Hall, and Joel Prieto, all acclaimed up-and-comers. July 25–August 21