Classical Music
10:46 am
Thu January 30, 2014

Cowboys In Love: 'Brokeback Mountain' Saddles Up For Opera

Originally published on Thu February 6, 2014 1:38 pm

In 2005, the film Brokeback Mountain broke ground as a major motion picture portraying a love story about two men: a pair of young cowboys, Ennis and Jack, in the 1960s.

They fall in love during a summer spent tending sheep in the isolation of a fictional mountain in Wyoming. They spend the rest of the film — and their lives — grappling with a love that they have to keep secret.

The film was based on a short story by Annie Proulx, and now it's been turned into an opera by the Pulitizer Prize-winning composer Charles Wuorinen. Proulx herself wrote the words that are sung — the libretto — and Brokeback Mountain, the opera, premiered this week in Madrid.

NPR's Renee Montagne reached Proulx and Wuorinen backstage to talk about this artistic transformation of a forbidden love that ends in a brutal death — a story that seems inherently operatic.

"That's why I wanted to write an opera about it," Wuorinen says. "It's a contemporary version of a universal human problem. Two people that are in love, who can't make it work, and it ends badly."

Proulx's story, which originally appeared in the New Yorker, seemed perfectly compact as it was.

"I thought, it could have been a novel if I enlarged on it, but it was kept very tight to express the inarticulate nature of the two main protagonists," Proulx says. "So, the opera, the libretto, gave a chance for depth and for the characters to grow."

One character whose role expands in the opera, Proulx says, is Ennis' wife, Alma.

"Alma is important because the ranch woman — long suffering, who does all of the chores, who never gets to inherit the property that she so improved — is a neglected figure. So, Alma has to speak for all of those thousands of ranch women who never had a voice."

Wuorinen says there's another more practical reason to beef up roles for women in the opera.

"When you contemplate an evening on stage with two men doing a great deal of the singing, you have to confront the possibility of getting tired of hearing that," he admits. "So, there is a direct practical, theatrical and musical reason for wanting more women in the picture. There is a scene for Alma in the wedding dress shop where she is picking out the gown she will wear in her wedding to Ennis, and that gives me a chance to have a complete change of sonority in the score, with the female voices that have not been present before."

Also in the score, there are even deeper musical considerations.

"In the case of this opening, what you've got is a low subcontra C, one of the lowest notes available to any instrument," Wuorinen says. "[It] stands, in a symbolic way, for the mountain — which itself, of course, is the venue for freedom when the two characters have their initial encounter but also is deadly — and C-natural, the low one especially, is therefore the note of death."

One of the most gratifying aspects of working with Proulx's story for Wuorinen was developing the character of Ennis, who in the beginning is inarticulate, with little ability to express himself.

"Over the course of the opera he becomes more and more capable of self-expression and self-acceptance," Wuorinen explains. "He deals first in grunts and shouts, basically. Then, as he gets older and a little bit more mature, he sings more and more. When he finally gets to elaborate singing, it's at the very end of the piece, when Jack is dead and he has lost everything. The tragedy of it is that he's achieved this very painfully, only after it is too late."

And here's when Ennis gets a full-throated aria, singing, "I'm choked up with love, love too late."

The opera's libretto offers a very different ending than the original short story, where Ennis' final words are stoic: "If you can't fix it, you've got to stand it."

"Well, he falls back into his place in rural Wyoming society," Proulx says. "There are many things in that life that if you can't fix them, you have to stand them. You can't fix the wind; you have to stand it. You can't fix a blinding storm; you have to stand it. And so it's an acceptance of his loveless fate."

But Proulx says that in the opera we need more than that — a larger piece of Ennis.

"We need to know what has happened, why he has changed. We need for him to tell us what's happened to him. Because at the end of the opera, he's not saying, 'If you can't fix it, you've got to stand it.' He's saying something quite different."

Charles Wuorinen and Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain premiered at Madrid's Teatro Real on Tuesday. It runs through Feb. 11.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The movie "Brokeback Mountain" was a landmark, a major motion picture that was a love story about two men. Two young cowboys, Ennis and Jack, fall in love during a summer in the 1960s while tending sheep in isolation on a Wyoming mountain.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

They spend the rest of the film and their lives grappling with the love that they have to keep secret. Out of that story came one of most famous lines in cinema history.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN")

HEATH LEDGER: (As Ennis) You are too much for me. I wish I knew how to quit you.

MONTAGNE: The movie was based on a short story by the writer Annie Proulx, and it's now been turned into an opera.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA)

MONTAGNE: This score was written by the Pulitizer Prize-winning composer Charles Wuorinen. Annie Proulx herself wrote the words that are sung, the libretto. "Brokeback Mountain," the opera, premiered this week in Madrid. We reached Proulx and Wuorinen backstage to talk about this artistic transformation of a forbidden love that ends in the brutal death of one of the lovers, and it really does seem very operatic. It seems like the stuff of opera.

CHARLES WUORINEN: Well, that's why I wanted to write an opera about it because you're exactly right. It is operatic and you've said it perfectly correctly. It's a contemporary version of a universal human problem. Two people who are in love, who can't make it work, and who end badly. And when one comes to the question of opera, opera, you know, is a treacherous medium because it is very easy for it to proceed by a kind of mixture of pomposity and silliness.

But because it is so elaborate, it offers the possibility of amplification. The mere fact of the medium itself make a kind of enlargement of the statements almost automatic.

MONTAGNE: As you will hear in a clip from the opera, it's the morning after Jack has pulled a drunken Ennis into his tent in a snowstorm for an intimate encounter. Ennis is disgusted with himself. Jack isn't sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA)

MONTAGNE: Annie Proulx, the short story that you wrote in the '90s, to many of us seems so perfect that it didn't need to go anywhere else. When you chose to take on writing the libretto, what did you find the most intriguing to be able to do?

ANNIE PROULX: Oh, just doing it, because I'd never written a libretto before and I thought it could have been a novel if one had enlarged on it, but it was kept very, very tight to express the inarticulate nature of the two main protagonists. So the opera, the libretto, gave a chance for depth and for the characters to grow.

MONTAGNE: And for some of the characters more than others. You added two characters that were quite minimal in the short story. For instance, Alma, Ennis's wife.

PROULX: Yeah. Alma is important because the ranch woman, long suffering, who does all of the chores, who never gets to inherit the property that she so improved, is a neglected figure. So Alma has to speak for all those thousands of ranch women who never had a voice.

WUORINEN: It might be worth mentioning before we go on talking about purely literary matters that when you contemplate an evening on stage with two men doing a great deal of the singing, you have to confront the possibility of getting tired of hearing that. So there is a direct practical, theatrical, and musical reason for wanting more women in the picture.

There is a scene for Alma in a wedding dress shop where she is picking out the gown she'll wear in her wedding to Ennis.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA)

WUORINEN: That gives me a chance to have a complete change of sonority in the score, with female voices that have not been present before.

MONTAGNE: And of course the music itself carries its own deeper meaning.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WUORINEN: In the case of this opening, what you've got is a low sub-contra C, one of the lowest notes available to any instrument, which stands, in a symbolic way, for the mountain, which itself, of course, is the venue for freedom when the two characters have their initial encounter, but also is deadly, and C-natural, this low one especially, is therefore the note of death.

MONTAGNE: Wow.

PROULX: Yes. This ain't no little thing.

MONTAGNE: Charles Wuorinen, what was for you some of the most gratifying parts of working with this material?

WUORINEN: Overall, the development of Ennis's character or capacity to express himself and to accept himself. Ennis is a character who is almost totally inarticulate at the beginning. This is reflected in the vocal treatment that I give him. He deals first in grunts and shouts, basically. Then, as he gets older and a little bit more mature with all these things, he sings more and more.

When he finally gets to elaborate singing, it's at the very end of the piece when Jack is dead and he has lost everything. And the tragedy of it, of course, is that he has achieved this very painfully, only after it is too late.

MONTAGNE: And there he has a full-throated aria. Just reading it, it's: I'm choked up with love, love too late.

WUORINEN: Yes. And I have to say that I was deeply affected by that last page of the libretto.

MONTAGNE: But the libretto does offer a very different ending than the original short story, where Ennis's final words are stoic: If you can't fix it, you've got to stand it.

PROULX: Well, he falls back into his place in rural Wyoming society. There are many, many things in that life that if you can't fix them, you have to stand them. You can't fix the wind, you have to stand it. You can't fix a blinding storm, you have to stand it. And so it's an acceptance of his loveless fate. You just have to stand it.

MONTAGNE: When it's an aria in an opera, do we need more? I mean do we need a larger piece of him?

PROULX: Yes. We do need more. We need to know what has happened, why he has changed. We need for him to tell what has happened to him. Because at the end of the opera he isn't saying if you can't fix it, you've got to stand it. He isn't saying that. He's saying something quite different.

MONTAGNE: And what he couldn't say in the short story, Ennis is able to sing passionately on stage: It was only you in my life and it will always be only you, Jack, I swear. We've been talking with composer Charles Wuorinen and librettist Annie Proulx about "Brokeback Mountain," the opera. It premiers in Madrid this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.