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Reenvisioning Cold Mountain

// Jul 28,2017

Reenvisioning Cold Mountain

An inside look at how a book becomes an opera

That Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain comprises 450 pages of engrossing prose is indisputable. The UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus’s novel bursts with thick description of the forests, rivers, and mountains of North Carolina, assembling a large cast of characters from all walks of life. Time and space become fluid as the Odyssey-like plot vacillates between the travels and travails of Ada and Inman as Inman treks from Raleigh to Cold Mountain during the waning days of the Civil War. Other than occasional flashbacks and brief memories, the two lovers are only united at the very end of the story. Frazier’s language is rich and dense, full of delightful details and powerful imagery.

All of which makes Cold Mountain an unexpected source for an opera, let alone one that clocks in at a mere two and a half hours. “It could have been a huge opera,” Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon observes. “To do all of it, you’d have to pack a dinner and the next day’s breakfast.” The relative brevity presented Higdon and librettist Gene Scheer with a challenge: to distill the essential themes and relationships out of the story to their purest form. Frazier recalls an early conversation with Scheer: “one my questions was, ‘This is a book about a guy walking a long distance. How do you do that on the stage?’ And Gene said, ‘I just finished Moby Dick. We’ll figure it out.’” Those challenges led to inventive solutions at all levels of the work, propelling the first large-scale opera to be set entirely in North Carolina.

Early in the process, Higdon and Scheer met over coffee and, in just a few hours, outlined the general shape of the opera, determining the major events they wanted to portray and the general pacing. For Higdon, it was important to vary the vocal texture on stage, moving between ensembles, choruses, and individual arias in a way that kept the music flowing. Somehow, save for a few minor tweaks, the final opera largely hews to that original outline. “It all worked. A lot of times that doesn’t happen. When you’re trying things out, you have to cut things and move things around,” Higdon, a first-time opera composer, adds.

Outline in hand, Scheer began the painstaking task of writing the libretto itself, condensing Frazier’s expansive novel into 23 short scenes. Surprisingly, the words were actually Scheer’s last concern. “Rather than thinking about what people are saying,” he says, “what I’m really trying to do is to figure out what they’re doing. In every scene, someone is making a choice, an active choice where they’re confronted with ‘do I do this, or do I not?’ It becomes an active theatrical experience, where the audience is watching these people changing the trajectories of their lives by the choices they make.” He singled out a few pivotal moments: Is Ada going to accept Ruby into her life? Is Inman going to stop the preacher Veasey from committing murder? Will Stobrod convince Ruby that he is a changed man?

At the same time, Scheer wanted to leave plenty of space for Higdon’s music to speak, to let it fill in missing details, allowing it to be what he calls “the marrow of the matter.” Higdon leapt at those opportunities, using her keen ear for orchestral color to tease out subtlety. For instance, whenever the villainous Teague is onstage, she calls for a variety of different percussion instruments to create snake-like sounds. “It doesn’t have to register in an audience member’s ear or their brain,” she says. “However, on a subconscious level you hope it does register so you don’t have to say, ‘here comes the bad guy.’” Similarly, to illustrate how Inman feels hollowed out by the war, she writes chords without thirds when he sings, leaving just an empty fifth. And in one arresting interlude in act two, Higdon writes a short tone poem that depicts Inman marching for a month as all the phases of the moon pass in the background.

Higdon takes this approach one step further when describing Ada’s evolution over the course of the opera. She views Ada as not fully formed in the first half, and so Ada’s music is more diffuse almost to the point of seeming adrift for the entirety of the first act. Only after intermission, as Ada learns from Ruby to be self-sufficient, does her music become more defined and directed. To further emphasize how long Ada’s process of self-discovery takes, Higdon only writes an aria for her in the second act, an unusual choice for a lead character in an opera. By the end, her music is assured, and she closes the opera with a quiet strength.

North Carolina is just as important to the story as any of the other characters, and Scheer and Higdon take complimentary approaches in rendering it. Before he started to write, Scheer, a New Yorker, visited the Fraziers in Asheville, staying in a farmhouse that had been run by women during the Civil War. Lines such as “Everything here is vertical” come from those few weeks he spent hiking the Appalachian Trail, absorbing the vastness of the mountains. Higdon’s sense of the land is more personal; she grew up in eastern Tennessee 60-miles as the crow flies from the actual Cold Mountain in North Carolina. She incorporates bits of local sounds into her score: a newly-composed bluegrass tune for Stobrod to play, some shape-note-inspired choruses, a folk-like melody for Teague to sing. In addition, she helped finesse the words themselves, bringing Scheer’s dialog closer to local dialect.

All this careful, intensive work pays off. The opera simultaneously captures much of the book’s grain while imbricating new, unexpected colors and emotions. So, it’s no surprise that its past performances in Santa Fe and Philadelphia were so well received. “I felt like I learned things about my book from seeing it through Gene and Jennifer’s eyes and ears,” Charles Frazier says, “about structure, about storytelling.”

Dan Ruccia is a Durham-based composer, writer, and graphic designer.