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Arts Desk

Warming Up for Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain

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Jennifer Higdon's first opera, COLD MOUNTAIN, premieres in Philadelphia in January, 2016.

Operagoers have a number of months to wait for the Jennifer Higdon/Gene Scheer opera, Cold Mountain, which premieres in Santa Fe in August, and then in February 2016 at Philadelphia's Academy of Music. The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns caught a sneak preview at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, where singers and authors were interviewed and excerpts were performed.

"A fence is a very good thing."

David Patrick Stearns: So says the Cold Mountain bad guy, Teague, who hunts down Civil War deserters as a way of staying out of the war himself. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris loves roles like this. But when composing the scene, Jennifer Higdon truly suffered.

Jennifer Higdon: I felt nauseous when I started this scene because I don't like the guy. So after watching people string barbed wire fences, I thought, that's Teague. He doesn't have the normal fence. His has sharp things on it, you know? He hurts people with it.

I never counted on the fact that these characters would be living in my head. Because they don't go away. It’s like they were also telling me what kind of music they needed. 

DPS: The central character, the Confederate soldier W.P. Inman - is so burned out by war that he only wants to get home to the woman he loves. He feels like a hollow man and wonders if he can rejoin polite society.

JH: And so I made decisions right off the bat, before I had ever written a note, that I was going to write music for Inman that would be kind of hollow, you couldn’t quite tell in the middle - was it a major chord? A minor chord? Are they fifths?

DPS: While many grand operas are based on venerable literary properties by long-dead authors, Cold Mountain comes from Charles Frazier, who is very much alive. And he, perhaps, is the critic who gives the opera's creators the most concern. How might he feel about singing versions of his characters?

Charles Frazier: That was strange. Because Inman can hardly speak, that’s in the book. That took a little adjustment to get used to that. 

DPS: Trust seems to run high in this operatic team. Yet Higdon must also answer to the characters inside her head. What did they think of the Guggenheim workshop?

JH: They're saying, "stay tuned."  Although, you know, I keep hearing in my head Inman saying “why do you have to kill me at the end?”

DPS: Well, opera always was an art form to die for.

The Works & Process series at the Guggenheim presented the first public showing of composer Jennifer Higdon’s first opera, based on Charles Frazier’s best-selling novel, Cold Mountain: