‘Brokeback Mountain,’ Salzburg State Theater production. (Photo: Anna-Maria Löffelberger)
It is a story that has captivated readers since it was first published in The New Yorker more than 20 years ago. Moviegoers were equally entranced by the film that Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers described as “unmissable and unforgettable… a landmark film and a triumph for Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.” And now opera fans have the rare opportunity to experience Brokeback Mountain in its U.S. premiere at New York City Opera (May 31 – June 4).
The heartbreaking story of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist takes place on the harsh terrain of Wyoming’s fictional Brokeback Mountain. Depicted with sweep vistas underscored by a melodic, lyrical score by Gustavo Santaolalla, the film’s visual poeticism veered from author Annie Proulx’s more bleak interpretation of rural America. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer returned to her source material to write the libretto for composer Charles Wuorinen’s score.
Originally commissioned in 2008 by then General Director Gerard Mortier, the opera was never produced in the U.S., instead, making its world premiere at Madrid’s Teatro Real. The New York City Opera production originated at the Salzburg State Theater and will feature a 26-piece orchestra. The production is the company’s second installment in its annual Pride Series, which is gaining national attention for pushing the boundaries in a typically conservative art form.
“The outpouring of critical and public support for last season’s New York premiere of Péter Eötvös’s Angels in America was overwhelming, and I am delighted by the excitement that is already surrounding this production and the sustained enthusiasm for our ongoing LGBT Pride Initiative,” says City Opera General Director Michael Capasso. “After three successful productions in Europe, Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain already holds a significant place in City Opera’s legacy of nurturing groundbreaking American work, despite the fact that the piece has yet to have its American premiere. Finally bringing this important work to the City Opera stage is an important milestone in our ongoing effort to retain the company’s place in America’s cultural vanguard.”
Bringing Ennis and Jack to life are two rising stars in the opera world. Daniel Okultich reprises the role of Ennis del Mar, which he originated in Madrid (directed by Ivo van Hove.) The baritone has appeared on the cover of Opera News and continues to gain momentum, having played the title role in Don Giovanne at 11 opera houses worldwide as well as modern works including The Fly (Los Angeles Opera) and Dead Man Walking (Vancouver Opera). Glen Seven Allen portrays Jack Twist, continuing to bridge the gap between opera and musical theater with credits that include New York City Opera’s La campana sommersa and the original Broadway company of The Light in the Piazza.
The pair, now deep in rehearsal with director Jacopo Spirei, understands the significance and challenges in undertaking such an iconic work in a different art form. Gone are Santaolalla’s melodies, replaced instead with modernist sound.
“It’s not lushly romantic music, nor is it sentimental,” says Okulitch. “It’s very angular, but this is my second time doing the role and I’m finding the lyricism. It’s profound music but don’t expect Ang Lee’s emotional language set to music. Annie wrote a story that was stark, creating an environment that isn’t pastoral nor are the characters.”
Allen says that having the opportunity to explore such a complex, challenging character was a particular draw to the project, reminding him of his experience seeing the film. “It’s really one of the most heartbreaking, powerful stories I’ve experienced in any medium,” reflects Allen. “I felt like it hurt my soul, I even dreamt about it.”
Proulx’s libretto draws from that deep ache and allows Allen to tap into his formal acting training. (He earned a Master of Fine Arts from University of Washington’s School of Drama.) “There’s a misunderstanding that [opera] is just dress-up and making pretty sounds instead of a visceral form of expression. It’s hard to get it right on all levels, but opera has that potential as does this piece. It’s such a strong story and incredibly well cast.”
Both performers appreciate the fact that opera is presented unamplified. With no sound design, the technology barrier disappears, and each must rely on technique to perform colloquial language that is supported and rises above a full orchestra. “It can be tricky,” says Okulitch. “We don’t speak in a fully supported Shakespearean way in day-to-day life, so we have to trick the brain to sound natural. The vocal training is imperative to make that primal core connection.”
Brokeback Mountain represents a new era for modern opera, with musical and rhythmic choices that reflect the narrative. “It is a harsh place that kills men, that drives men crazy,” says Allen of Proulx’s searing setting, realized in Wuorinen’s score. It also exemplifies an exciting new direction, with more diverse stories being told, female composers like Missy Mazzoli writing new works (Breaking the Waves), and the boundaries between opera and theater blurring into a new transformative art form.
The challenge? “The general public doesn’t know the miracle of a human voice and an orchestra,” says Allen. “How do we package this so it’s something audiences want to see?”
Maybe it begins with two men in love, on a mountain.
New York City Opera
Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater
10 Columbus Circle, NYC
May 31- June 4
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.