Words into music Novelist Charles Frazier and librettist Gene Scheer
“Cold Mountain” novelist Charles Frazier and librettist Gene Scheer
In the bestselling 1997 novel Cold Mountain, the parallel stories of Inman, an injured soldier who has deserted the Confederate Army in the final months of the Civil War, and Ada, a woman back home in North Carolina who learns to run a farm in order to keep herself alive, are told by author Charles Frazier in alternating chapters. Though the two don’t know each other well, a potential relationship between them after the war is partly what sees them through times of hardship. Inman walks hundreds of miles to get to Ada, along the way avoiding the Home Guard — Confederate loyalists out to round up deserters and outliers by any means necessary — as well as other individuals out to harm him. Though many people also help him in his journey, he experiences and metes out brutal violence, and goes without food for extended periods of time, an emptiness that renders him an automaton, able only to put one foot in front of the other. At the farm, Ada is joined by a more experienced mountain woman, Ruby, who teaches her how to manage the land she owns, from milking the cow and planting crops to making hard cider to barter with for meat from the neighbors. The women are more than capable of thriving without the care and oversight of fathers or husbands, which is new territory for Ada and well-trod ground for Ruby.
At nearly 450 pages, Cold Mountain weaves back and forth through time at a leisurely pace, with side characters and their stories often taking center stage. The length of the book seems to echo the length of Inman’s arduous walk. Using all the words you want to tell a story is a luxury of literature not well-afforded by other mediums. The film version of Cold Mountain (2003), adapted for the screen and directed by Anthony Minghella, is considered long at nearly three hours, and still plotlines had to be compressed and characters conflated to convey the story. “I remember talking to Minghella about the tyranny of time,” Frazier told Pasatiempo. “He said as a novelist I always have the option of correcting a problem through addition, but at some point in the writing of a screenplay, that is one solution to a problem that is no longer on the table.”
Now another adaptation of Cold Mountain is about to have its premiere. Composer Jennifer Higdon and librettist Gene Scheer have created an opera from Frazier’s National Book Award-winning work, which opens at Santa Fe Opera on Saturday, Aug. 1. Scheer’s past librettos include two other clas-American sics of literature, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, as well as the lyric drama To Hell
and Back and Camille Claudel: Into the Fire, a song cycle premiered by Joyce DiDonato and the Alexander String Quartet. Scheer’s song “American Anthem,” sung by Norah Jones, was featured in Ken Burns’ Emmy Award-winning World War II documentary for PBS, The War.
The conventions of opera differ from those of cinema, but the time available within which to tell a story remains a significant challenge. “Including everything in the novel would make this a nine-hour opera,” Scheer told Pasatiempo. “We tell the story in about two hours and 20 minutes.”
Scheer first read Cold Mountain around the time it was published and saw the movie when it came out. He dove back into the novel after he and Higdon decided to work on an adaptation to see how the story could be distilled into the operatic form. “The first question I ask myself is what the music can depict on its own,” he said. “The question is, why do it as an opera?” In this case, Higdon’s compositions carry much of Frazier’s tone and the mood of the novel, which pays close attention to the natural world and the physical and psychological relationships the characters have with that world. After deciding which aspects of the story the music will carry, the next step isn’t creating that music or writing the words, but figuring out what will happen in each scene.
“What’s at stake? What are people doing? What people are saying comes last,” Scheer said, estimating that about 20 to 25 percent of the libretto comes directly from lines in the novel that “sing well.” He created the rest around those resonant pieces of prose, conflating and reimagining plots and characters as needed. Scheer retained Frazier’s nonlinear time structure and storytelling narrative, and though he had to eliminate some beloved characters, such as the Goat Woman who nurses Inman back to health after he’s captured by the Home Guard, he created new characters from some of the stories told by the novel’s minor characters in order to diversify the voices telling the larger story.
“The opening of Act 2 starts with a seven-minute scene of Lucinda, the slave girl O’Dell told Inman about in the book,” he explained. O’Dell, a man Inman meets in a rooming house, had fallen in love with Lucinda, so his father beat him up and then sold his beloved. Scheer said Lucinda serves much the same function in the story as the Goat Woman, but she’s a runaway slave instead of a hermit. “Inman is still saved, but he’s saved in a different way. The cool thing about this story is it’s this fulcrum of American history, the Civil War, but it’s not really about the war — it’s about how people react to the war.”
One of the book’s important plot lines that the opera retains is Ruby’s father Stobrod’s musical redemption. Stobrod regularly left Ruby to fend for herself as she was growing up, so he could go out drinking and gambling. During the war, his mediocre fiddle-playing transforms into a true artistic calling when he’s asked to serenade a dying girl. His character was modeled after several old fiddle players Frazier met while he was working on the novel. “Old-time fiddlers and banjo players had individual styles,” he said. “I saw Stobrod as being on the wilder side of the continuum between strict adherence to traditional styles and total improvisation.”
“This completely horrible father has been changed by what he’s experienced, and by the miraculous powers of music. Ruby doesn’t believe he can change, and part of her journey is to accept that he has,” Scheer said. While Ada’s character grows as she blossoms outside of her cossetted upbringing as a preacher’s daughter, Inman’s symbolic voyage, Frazier and Scheer agreed, is to understand the damage war has done to him and to the country. “As Charles said to me, one of the things about Inman is that he’s good at violence. He didn’t ask for it, but he’s good at it. There is a lot of fantastically choreographed violence in the production.”
It’s the interweaving of the very active violence and the quieter moments back home with Ada and Ruby on Cold Mountain that Frazier is looking forward to. “It’s got that Odyssey skeleton, the warrior returning home, and the woman at home trying to cope with the chaos the war has created,” he said. “But I’ve always looked at it as a story about yearning, about what these people want. They’re struggling to achieve some of what they’re yearning for, and some of them just yearn for each other, or for a kind of life or world around them that’s better than the one they’re occupying.”