Words into mu­sic Nov­el­ist Charles Fra­zier and li­bret­tist Gene Scheer

“Cold Moun­tain” nov­el­ist Charles Fra­zier and li­bret­tist Gene Scheer

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

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.”

Gene Scheer

Charles Fra­zier

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