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

Tom Randle (left) and Daniel Okulitch in the opera <em>Brokeback Mountain</em>.
Javier del Real
Courtesy of the artist
Tom Randle (left) and Daniel Okulitch in the opera Brokeback Mountain.

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.

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