On stage at last, ‘Cold Moun­tain’ opera is talk of the town, be­yond

Pro­duc­tion draws wide at­ten­tion, big names

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Anne Con­sta­ble

There’s a real buzz in Santa Fe this sum­mer. It’s not about the rain. Or the weeds. Or the re­tire­ment of the po­lice chief af­ter he spent 13 months on the job. It’s about a new opera based on

Cold Moun­tain, a best-selling novel by Charles Fra­zier that had its world pre­miere this month at The Santa Fe Opera.

“You bet there’s buzz. You can see it. You can hear it. You can feel it,” said Gary Mur­phy, a Cal­i­for­nia public re­la­tions con­sul­tant who at­tended open­ing night with friends from Washington, D.C., Los An­ge­les and Con­necti­cut.

Ev­ery year, Mur­phy said, the group meets at a dif­fer­ent op­er­atic event. And this year, Cold Moun­tain was an ob­vi­ous choice.

Peo­ple have been talk­ing about it since 2011, when The Santa Fe Opera an­nounced it was com­mis­sion­ing a work based on the beloved novel about a Civil War de­serter try­ing to make his way home to his love.

The idea was an au­di­en­ce­pleaser from the be­gin­ning.

Not only is the opera based on a com­pelling story that won the Na­tional Book Award for Fic­tion and spent 61 weeks on The New York

Times’ best-seller list, but it brings to­gether a sought-af­ter com­poser in Jen­nifer Hig­don, win­ner of a Pulitzer Prize, and Gene Scheer, one of the opera world’s busiest li­bret­tists.

The cast is also star-stud­ded, with sev­eral singers who are pop­u­lar with Santa Fe oper­a­go­ers. Nathan Gunn, a bari­tone who made his de­but at The Santa Fe Opera in 1998 as Clau­dio in Beatrice and Bene

dict and is a cham­pion of Amer­i­can opera, sings the role of In­man, the wounded Con­fed­er­ate soldier. Is­abel Leonard, who sang the role of Cherubino in the 2008 pro­duc­tion of The

Mar­riage of Fi­garo, is his love, Ada. And Jay Hunter Mor­ris, a com­pany ap­pren­tice in 1990 and 1991 who made his de­but as the Drum Ma­jor in

Wozzeckin 2001, is the evil Teague, a leader of the Home Guard mili­tia that is search­ing for Civil War de­sert­ers.

Weeks be­fore open­ing night, ticket sales were so good that the com­pany de­cided to add a sixth per­for­mance. Gen­eral di­rec­tor Charles MacKay said last week that about 1,000 tick­ets had been sold, even

with­out much advertising.

“This is one of the most talked about shows that we’ve ever done,” said Daniel Zill­mann, the opera’s public re­la­tions di­rec­tor. “Peo­ple have come out of the wood­work be­cause the hype is so big.”

It doesn’t hurt ei­ther that Gunn and Leonard make an at­trac­tive cou­ple.

“There’s a lit­tle sex ap­peal to the two of them in opera. In this crazy lit­tle world, they are the hot thing,” Zill­mann said.

About 50 mem­bers of the news media were on hand Aug. 1 for the sold-out open­ing per­for­mance, which was filmed by a PBS New­sHour cam­era crew for a story that aired Wed­nes­day. All the opera mag­a­zines are send­ing re­view­ers, Zill­mann said, in­clud­ing some who haven’t been to see Santa Fe pro­duc­tions for a while. The pro­duc­tion has also drawn some rec­og­niz­able faces, in­clud­ing ac­tor Tommy Lee Jones, who at­tended the open­ing night per­for­mance.

Also in the au­di­ence were rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Opera Philadelphia and Min­nesota Opera. Their com­pa­nies are co­com­mis­sion­ers of the opera and are sched­uled to present Cold

Moun­tain in com­ing years. “So many times com­pa­nies have pre­miered op­eras that go dead in the wa­ter and then re-emerged 200 years later. But we know this one has life af­ter this point,” Zill­mann said. The opera is also ex­pected to be pre­sented by the North Carolina Opera, which is part of the con­sor­tium.

Re­views based on the open­ing night per­for­mance were gen­er­ally fa­vor­able.

Gre­gory Sul­li­van Isaacs wrote for the Fort Worth Star-Tele­gram, “In this critic’s mind, Cold Moun­tain is an as­ton­ish­ing tri­umph, des­tined to en­ter the op­er­atic canon of fre­quently per­formed works.” The Fi­nan­cial Times called it a “solid de­but.”

The Den­ver Post’s re­viewer said, “The mu­si­cal adap­ta­tion of Cold Moun­tain ar­rived at the Santa Fe Opera Satur­day night with all of the ex­pec­ta­tions a very good idea pro­vokes. … A few notes in, it was clear the pres­sure brought out the best in ev­ery­one. Cold Moun­tain, the opera, turns out to be a spe­cial piece of Amer­i­cana art that ex­am­ines both our for­ti­tude and fail­ures.”

Marc Scorca, pres­i­dent and CEO of Opera Amer­ica, the ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tion for opera in the United States, said there is great in­ter­est in this pro­duc­tion be­cause the source ma­te­rial is so well-known. Hig­don is an ac­com­plished com­poser of con­tem­po­rary clas­si­cal mu­sic, but this is her first opera. Plus, what­ever The Santa Fe Opera does, mu­sic lovers pay at­ten­tion.

“It’s very much the buzz,” Scorca said, as ev­i­denced by the num­ber of peo­ple from the in­dus­try who have come here to see it, in­clud­ing a num­ber of mem­bers of his or­ga­ni­za­tion who came for the pre­miere.

Lead­ers of other opera com­pa­nies also are in Santa Fe for Cold Moun­tain, Scorca said, nam­ing Deb­o­rah San­dler, di­rec­tor and CEO of the Lyric Opera Kansas City; David De­van, gen­eral di­rec­tor and pres­i­dent of Opera Philadelphia, which is pre­sent­ing Cold Moun­tain next Fe­bru­ary; David Ben­nett, gen­eral di­rec­tor of the San Diego Opera; and Keith Cerny, gen­eral di­rec­tor and CEO of The Dal­las Opera.

“Peo­ple pay at­ten­tion to pre­mieres,” Scorca said. “But this is more than the norm.”

Joyce Idema, an opera lover and for­mer spokes­woman for The Santa Fe Opera, said the house was packed for the pre­miere and, “There was a real sense of buzz.”

She said she thought some of the in­ter­est was based on the fact that the story is such an Amer­i­can one, and the Civil War, which ended 150 years ago, “is still very much in our con­scious­ness.”

More­over, she said, “It’s a great story with great drama and it will break your heart.”

Opera Un­veiled au­thor Desirée Mays, who’s known for her din­ner talks at The Santa Fe Opera prior to per­for­mances, said that when she lec­tured at the Metropoli­tan Opera in New York City in the spring, Cold Moun­tain is what peo­ple wanted to know about.

“The warmth of Charles Fra­zier’s book is in this piece. It’s quite beau­ti­ful,” she said.

Twenty years ago, it would have been “im­pos­si­ble to sell tick­ets to a new opera sight un­seen,” Mays added.

Ex­pec­ta­tions about this opera were fu­eled by a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween The Santa Fe Opera and other arts or­ga­ni­za­tions in the city on some spe­cial events cen­tered around the Civil War, called “Echoes from Cold Moun­tain.”

There was a cham­ber mu­sic con­cert; a book club at Col­lected Works that fea­tured books by Wil­liam Faulkner and Geral­dine Brooks and in­cluded a ses­sion on Cold Moun­tain mod­er­ated by Fra­zier; a film se­ries at the CCA that in­cluded Ken Burns’ ground­break­ing doc­u­men­tary se­ries on the Civil War; an ex­hi­bi­tion at the

New Mexico History Mu­seum; and a three-day sym­po­sium — all of which whet­ted the ap­petite of peo­ple for the world pre­miere of Cold Moun­tain.

Mered­ith David­son, cu­ra­tor of 19th- and 20th-cen­tury art of the South­west for the history mu­seum, said that An­drea Fel­lows Wal­ters, the opera’s di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion and com­mu­nity pro­grams, first ap­proached the mu­seum two years ago and the or­ga­ni­za­tions then be­gan brain­storm­ing.

From the get-go, “you could feel a real buzz around the idea of cross-con­stituen­cies in terms of valu­ing history, art and cul­ture,” David­son said.

With Daniel Kosharek, ar­chiv­ist at the Palace of the Gover­nors Photo Ar­chives; Tom Leech, di­rec­tor of the Palace Press; and sev­eral cu­ra­tors, the group de­vel­oped a pro­gram that in­cludes an ex­hibit called Fad­ing Mem­o­ries:

Echoes of the Civil War, which runs through Feb. 26, 2016.

With the opera, the group put to­gether a three-day sym­po­sium that David­son said as many as 200 peo­ple at­tended. One ses­sion fea­tured the Cold Moun­tain cre­ative team talk­ing about turn­ing a novel into an opera.

The events drew reg­u­lars in­ter­ested in New Mexico history, as well as some who had never been in­side the mu­seum, David­son said.

“It all built to­gether to bring buzz to the opera,” she said, and was so suc­cess­ful that more such col­lab­o­ra­tions are ex­pected in the fu­ture.

Fra­zier’s pres­ence also added to the an­tic­i­pa­tion, as he was ac­tively in­volved in the events lead­ing up to the pre­miere of

Cold Moun­tain, although not in an interfering way.

When Hig­don and Scheer were first talk­ing about an opera based on Cold Moun­tain, Hig­don called Fra­zier to find out how he felt about it. Fra­zier said he re­lies on his in­tu­ition in such sit­u­a­tions. When Hol­ly­wood was bid­ding on the movie rights to the book, he said he had half a dozen con­ver­sa­tions with var­i­ous peo­ple be­fore set­tling on An­thony Minghella, who wrote and di­rected the film ver­sion of Cold Moun­tain re­leased in 2003.

In the case of opera, Fra­zier, Hig­don and Scheer quickly found what Fra­zier called a “com­mon­al­ity of ideas.” Sheer came to Asheville, N.C., where Fra­zier lives with his wife, and they drove around talk­ing about the process of adapt­ing a novel about a jour­ney to the con­fines of a stage. Then, Fra­zier said, Scheer headed off to a hip­pie re­sort town north of Asheville, where he stayed for a week soak­ing in the at­mos­phere. He also took Scheer to the real Cold Moun­tain, which is 35 miles south of his home.

Fra­zier heard Hig­don’s first act at a work­shop in Philadelphia at the Curtis In­sti­tute of Mu­sic, where she is on the fac­ulty, and in March of this year, he joined other mem­bers of the cre­ative team at the Guggen­heim Mu­seum’s Works and Process se­ries, in which sev­eral mem­bers of the Santa Fe cast sang.

Fra­zier asked ques­tions and an­swered them dur­ing the writ­ing of the opera, but he made no sug­ges­tions. “Once I get that feel­ing that these peo­ple are enor­mously tal­ented and their in­ten­tions are to make a re­ally good piece of art in an area I don’t know an aw­ful about … I just en­joy the ride,” he said in a re­cent in­ter­view.

The first time he heard In­man sing, how­ever, Fra­zier said he was sur­prised about how ath­letic the craft is. By the time he got to Santa Fe and saw the last dress re­hearsal and the pre­miere, he said, “I im­me­di­ately rec­og­nized my char­ac­ters.”

Fra­zier’s son-in-law and daugh­ter, who was in ele­men­tary school when he wrote the book, joined him for the pre­miere, and his wife’s fam­ily ar­rived for the sec­ond per­for­mance.

Mean­while, he’s been deal­ing with a large num­ber of in­ter­view re­quests and try­ing to en­joy a Santa Fe sum­mer. “I brought a suit­case of out­door clothes but have barely had a chance to wear them,” he said.

He did find time for a lit­tle walk on the Win­sor Trail, he ad­mit­ted, and, yes, he’s been meet­ing peo­ple as he walks around town who tell him how much they are look­ing for­ward to see­ing the opera.

COUR­TESY KEN HOWARD/THE SANTA FE OPERA

Nathan Gunn and Is­abel Leonard por­tray wounded Con­fed­er­ate soldier In­man and his love, Ada, in The Santa Fe Opera’s pro­duc­tion of Cold Moun­tain. The opera, which pre­miered last week­end in Santa Fe, has been gen­er­at­ing buzz since the pro­ject was first an­nounced in 2011.

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