On stage at last, ‘Cold Mountain’ opera is talk of the town, beyond
Production draws wide attention, big names
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.
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.