(l to r) Glenn Seven Allen and Daniel Okulitch in City Opera’s ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ (Photo: Sarah Shatz)
I was pondering as the curtain was about to rise at City Opera’s production of Brokeback Mountain, ‘wow, we’ve come a long way, baby.’ The recent Broadway, Off-Broadway, and opera season has been a veritable rainbow of LGBTQ-themed works—most of them artistically and commercially successful. And Brokeback Mountain is yet another firmly planted stake that proclaims the quality and quantity of queer creative voices.
The second installment in the company’s Pride Initiative (last year’s title was Peter Eötvös’ opera Angels in America), City Opera is tackling contemporary subject matter and encouraging new audiences to discover how opera is evolving in the 21st century.
Composer Charles Wuorinen’s work is a modern, often disruptive piece that may not rest easily on the listener’s ears. Featuring a libretto by Annie Proulx based on her namesake novella, its musicality is a far cry from Gustavo Santaolalla’s Oscar-winning score for Ang Lee’s film adaptation. But in many ways, it more accurately captures Proulx’s vision of the stark Wyoming landscape that provides the backdrop for an unresolved love affair between Ennis Del Mar (Daniel Okulitch) and Jack Twist (Glenn Seven Allen).
The two leading men admirably tackle Wuorinen’s work, scaling Eva Musil’s set and the even more foreboding range of emotions laid on the page by Proulx, which finds the pair struggling to reconcile their deep emotional and physical connection over the course of a multi-decade affair. Their wives—Alma (Heather Buck) and Lureen (Hilary Ginther)—are portrayed and played with less dimension (there were chuckles from the audience when Alma discovers Ennis and Jack kissing upon their long-anticipated reunion). Director Jacopo Spirei otherwise manages the supporting cast, with a particularly moving scene at the opera’s end when Ennis visits Jack’s parents (Kevin Courtemanche and Jenni Bank) after his untimely death.
The production’s history has roots with City Opera, but due to various circumstances never came to fruition. The piece premiered in Madrid in January 2014, with Okulitch and Buck reprising their roles this summer. Okulitch’s rich bass-baritone informs Ennis’s inner life, while Allen’s more piercing tenor is the fire behind the pair’s troubled love affair.
Next season, the company will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall with its first commissioned work, Stonewall. “City Opera, in its ongoing mission as ‘The People’s Opera,’ is devoted both to serving the community around it and to celebrating the people and culture that are the lifeblood of this great city,” says General Director Capasso. “I am overjoyed that the first commission of this administration is a work that memorializes a uniquely New York moment that sparked a movement that has changed the world. Next June, millions will come to New York City to join our annual celebration of love, acceptance, and pride, and to commemorate 50 years of progress in the continuing struggle for equality. City Opera is honored to share this historic moment with them.”
“Were it not for the bravery of those at the Stonewall Inn on that June night in 1969, many of the rights I take for granted as a gay, married man would have been a lot longer in coming,” says composer Iain Bell. “Therefore, it is an absolute privilege to be asked to give voice and music to these courageous people, these heroes who fought for the freedom of expression and, most importantly, the freedom to love for theirs and all generations that followed.”
“Stonewall was a New York traffic jam of diverse forces that collided and accidentally detonated a movement,” adds librettist Mark Campbell. “It’s an important story to retell now, at a time when we’re seeing the erosion of the rights in this country we worked so hard to attain.”
In the meantime, Broadway bristles with other LGBTQ stories, including the acclaimed revival of Angels in America and the all-gay The Boys in the Band. Opera fans can also join City Opera as they march in this year’s NYC Pride Parade on June 24.