‘Brokeback Mountain’ becomes an opera-to-be

[12 June 2008]

By Peter Dobrin

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

American composer Charles Wuorinen has been commissioned by New York City Opera to write a work based on Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” a short story about a romantic relationship between two cowboys, the company has announced.

Wuorinen, a New Yorker, has won both a Pulitzer Prize (in 1970, for “Time’s Encomium”) and a MacArthur grant. He has written more than 240 works, including an earlier opera, “Haroun and the Sea of Stories.” Based on the novel by Salman Rushdie, it was premiered by New York City Opera in 2004.

Obviously, it’s early in the game for firm answers about the new commission, but the 70-year-old composer this week offered a few clues in a phone interview about what might be heard when the work arrives on stage in the spring of 2013.

Q: Why did this project appeal to you?

A: Well, it has the potential to be a very dramatic thing - operatic doomed love and tragedy, the conflict between love and duty if you will ... the basic material out of which many operas and tragedies can be made. It’s just that the circumstances are updated to our time.

Q: Have you done any work on it yet?

A: We don’t yet know whether Annie Proulx will do the libretto, so I haven’t done anything directly. We have had a few preliminary discussions and I have a number of other works to get out of the way. I see starting in earnest beginning in 2009.

Q: What will determine whether Proulx does the libretto?

A: It’s a question of time. We are all very busy. I don’t want to speak for her. I think she wants to, but there may be practical considerations that may get in the way.

Q: What if she doesn’t do the libretto? Would you write it yourself?

A: We have some other ideas in mind. I doubt I would do it. It’s not a wise idea, generally speaking.

Q: What are the big challenges in this project, at least as you see them now?

A: Without knowing what form the libretto takes, it’s difficult to be specific. I think that I would like to have a somewhat larger role for the wives of the two principal characters than in the current story, for questions of vocal balance and for theatrical aspects as well.

Q: Have you thought about structure? Will it follow the film or the original story?

A: I think it will follow the story. The film has its own character, and I am not partial to referencing the film. One thing the film fails to do is to make quite clear the degree to which the landscape, the mountains, the effect it all has on the characters. It’s a very hard and unforgiving environment in which these people have to function and it does prevent them from taking the kind of escape routes they might otherwise have. I know that Annie Proulx is very much engaged by this question, not just in this story but in others that come from the same collection. I want to make sure that we have elements of menace in the landscape clearly delineated.

Q: Who will design the production?

A: We’re not sure yet. I have a couple of ideas, but I think it’s premature.

Q: Do you see any operatic ancestors to this anywhere in the repertoire?

A: Oh, I don’t know. Certain aspects of it are pretty generically operatic, but I have no models in mind. It’s a grand tragedy. I think of it that way.

Q: Is hanging this work on a popular film an advantage?

A: I have no idea. I would imagine that by the time this is produced the film won’t be on people’s minds much anymore. The group interested in the operatic stage is not the same public interested in film. If we’re talking about 2013 at the earliest, I would imagine that the film will pretty much have faded. My interests in this are on the merits of the work.

Q: What does subject matter say to you as far as style?

A: I am going to set it simply the way I would set anything else. I am not very adept at self-description. People can make their own descriptions of it. I would hesitate to make any descriptive adjectives about what I do.

Q: Would you say that published descriptions of your style are accurate? Is it fair to say that you write using a 12-tone method?

A: The problem with verbal description of music begins with the incompleteness of the descriptive adjectives and goes on to the trouble that the adjectives mean something different to different people. Generally speaking, words that look as if they are technical - such as serial - are really not well understood by most people who use them. They become tags. Other descriptive adjectives that are about aesthetics - beautiful, ugly, lyrical, dramatic, what have you - are almost vacuous. They don’t really say much of anything.

Q: And yet you write frequently about music, and have been described as an eloquent writer.

A: No. I may be eloquent, but I don’t write often. I think my attitude is that I stand against a kind of pandering in the arts, which I think is very destructive in the long run and has the characteristics of confusing high culture and popular culture and has the result of damaging both. Over the years I haven’t deviated much from my principle. I’ve been criticized for not going along with the flow, but I am not going to change my fundamental values because they have become less widely held than they used to be. I think all this discussion of this sort is not helpful, because I think people who have come to my work and understand where it fits in the larger picture have no difficulty with it.

Q: Does this project involve any special sensitivity to this being about a gay relationship?

A: I suppose it requires a certain empathy no matter what the relationship is. It’s a story of doomed love, and it happens that in this case a large part of what the story is is a homosexual relationship taking place in a very homophobic society. It’s part of the reason why it appealed to me, because that has resonance in our own day. For better or worse, today we don’t care if a woman has a child out of wedlock, but at the time “Faust” was written it was an issue. Well, our involvement with that story today is a little put on, a little artificial. However, this comes from the land of Matthew Shepard, after all, so it makes it a little bit more believable in our own time. People in this kind of relationship had to do what they had to do. They could not fulfill their lives the way they wanted to.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/brokeback-mountain-becomes-an-opera-to-be/