Mounting an Operatic Mountain: MAW’s West Coast Premiere

By Steven Libowitz   |   August 1, 2019
Composer Jennifer Higdon; Cold Mountain makes its West Coast premiere at the Granada Friday, August 2, and Sunday August 4

For its 2019 opera presentation, Music Academy of the West is providing the vocal and instrumental fellows the chance to take on a very modern work that has only had a handful of previous productions. Cold Mountain – the 2014 saga from the prolific composer Jennifer Higdon – is adapted from Charles Frazier’s epic Civil War tale of conflict, romance, loss, and yearning, an emotionally raw story that has previously succeeded as both a novel and a major film.

Inman is a wounded Confederate soldier who, gutted even worse by the horrors of war, deserts the army to make his way back to his beloved Ada. He risks the journey home to the North Carolina region despite the dangers to return to his love, a Southern lady of privilege now suffering her own indignities and devastation. Higdon, who is serving as MAW’s composer-in-residence for the final week of the season, has been lauded for her sensitive and regionally authentic approach to the material. She talked about Cold Mountain and more over the phone from her home in Philadelphia – where the opera became the third biggest-selling production in Opera Philadelphia’s history.

Q. Can I first ask how you got into classical music, coming from a family that didn’t indulge, and how you became a composer?

A. My mom had gotten a used flute at a pawn shop, and I taught myself to play, and joined the high school marching band. It was such a great experience that I decided I wanted to major in music. But I didn’t know anything at that point, which was probably a good thing.

I was a performance major, which meant I had to learn everything from the bottom up – repertoire, theory, ear training – all the things most musicians have already gone through before college. It was quite a steep curve. I was always catching up. I have to admit, it wasn’t until I won the Pulitzer Prize that I felt like I actually did. Plus, people started returning my phone calls. 

How did you transition into composing?

My flute teacher had me write something for flute and piano. It was a dorky little two-minute piece called “Night Creatures.” But there was something about writing itself that tremendously appealed to me. I just kept doing it even after the assignment was over, while I was also studying performance even though I knew I would switch for grad school. I think it was in my blood: My dad was an artist who worked at home, so creating things seemed very normal to me. I kept playing for years as a professional, and only stopped when I got too busy with commissions. There’s a real difference between creating something from nothing and playing someone else’s work. They’re very different mental and emotional experiences.

What’s your process for composing? Do you hear the music in your head, or follow some sort of technique? What is the mix between inspiration and perspiration?

Because I write four to six hours every day, it’s a combination. Sometimes I do hear a lot in my head, but even when I don’t, I have to move the music forward because I work on commission. I feel like I have to at least write the next 15 seconds. So often it’s the fact of sitting down to work that brings the inspiration. Of course, it depends on the piece. Sometimes I take wild leaps. But since I work every day, I seem to get more visits from the inspiration fairy… I don’t look back. I don’t let [thoughts] catch up with me. I just keep the pencil moving across the page. I don’t ever end a day without putting something on the page, even if I erase it all the next day. Part of composing is taking what starts as a mediocre idea and making it special.

Where it comes from is mysterious. No one can explain it. There’s one duet in Cold Mountain that came in one day; those normally take two weeks to write. I have no idea why that happened. I can tell you that when I got to the end of composing Cold Mountain I thought, “Good grief, that’s a lot of music! Where did all that come from?” 

Why did you choose the novel for your first opera?

It definitely was the location, the landscape. I know the places, I recognize these people. And the idea of writing with an Appalachian sound, even put fiddling and bluegrass in the score – wouldn’t that be cool? But it was but also the story. Lordy, I spent five years of searching, went through hundreds of novels, studying tons of operas, and I realized that love and death are just huge for opera. Those are the big themes in the novel. But you have to care about the characters, you have to live with them – feel their emotions, good or bad. Cold Mountain just resonated. I could tell by the third page that I’d found it – literately a gut instinct. Creating music that is different for each character, showing who they are and also evoking in the audience the emotions you are thinking as a composer, it’s an interesting challenge. But if it’s a story you don’t like, you are in trouble. 

I’ve read that you were haunted by the opera the same way many others were deeply affected by the book or the movie.

Oh, yeah. It took me 28 months to write, and those characters lived in my head the whole time, even in my sleep. I was so emotionally invested – feeling love, happy, fearful, relieved – the characters have still never gone away completely. (Now I understand) this is how people go mad. When a character was dying, I was nauseous the whole time writing it. And when the opera ends, I had two weeks of literally weeping while I was writing. Even now, as I sit through hearing it, I come a little bit unglued.

But it was worth it: I wanted the audience to feel what I felt and now I get to see that happening for other people as they watch the opera. It’s magical. The other day, someone was riding past me on his bicycle, and he turned around and came back, stopped me on the street and asked if he could give me a hug because he was so moved by Cold Mountain. It just doesn’t get any better than that. 

What are your thoughts about an educational institute rather than a professional company mounting the West Coast premiere of Cold Mountain?

I absolutely love it! Young singers originally did the workshopping of the opera while I was working on it (at Curtis in her hometown of Philadelphia). They were phenomenal. Young performers these days are so amazing, so good, and I’ve already met some of the singers at other institutes and programs, and they’re really wonderful. I made a few small changes, a few adjustments in the vocal parts where requested to fit the specific sings, small things in the orchestra for the staging and action. That’s standard with a new opera. I think it’s going to be great!

Diving Deep with Director Darrah

Putting on the West Coast premiere of Cold Mountain marks an ambitious milestone in the Music Academy of the West’s opera program, a fact not lost on stage director James Darrah, newly appointed this year as MAW’s Vocal Institute Director. “Jennifer [Higdon’s] ideas are exciting… and the score [is] a rich experience for the fellows,” he said in an email interview earlier this summer. “The opera has tons of roles, challenging music, and gives the fellows really exciting scenes to dig into.”

Cold Mountain also gives Darrah the opportunity to dig deep into the emotions of the characters, planning the staging and the action to explore movements and motivations as much as the music. “My goal is to activate some of the dreamspace – some of the dark surrealism of the piece as it lives in war-time memory. There’s a big oscillation between violence and rather sobering reality and fiction/memory that’s intriguing.”

And the director is also taking pains to link the Civil War time period – where a country was divided against itself – to today’s social and global climate. “That weighed heavily on choosing the piece, too,” he said. “The content definitely also already resonates with the fellows: to have conversations about this period of US history but also find a way to actually craft those into a meaningful theatrical experience. I keep asking our creative team and the cast [to consider]: ‘Why do you want to tell this story?’ It can’t be just a love story based on a famous novel based on mythology set during the US Civil War. We have a responsibility to illuminate something larger and striking in ourselves, our choices, our beliefs and our own shortcomings.”

(Cold Mountain is performed Friday night and Sunday afternoon at the Granada. See below for details.)

The Bass Line

To say that double bassist Edgar Meyer thrives on musical challenge would be like suggesting Edmund Hillary had a passing interest in exploration. In addition to the genre-hopping between classical and bluegrass music that blend the bow and finger-picking favored by the multiple-award winning musician, Meyer also almost always chooses difficult pieces for his solo concerts. His MAW recital on Thursday, August 1, is no exception, as he’ll open his program with Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1.

“It’s as much like a keyboard piece as a string piece and that is one of the most difficult things to do on the bass,” Meyer explained in the portions of an email interview that arrived too late for last week’s column. “Achieving the clarity that helps make these pieces apparent is almost going against the nature of the instrument. Bass is dark and cloudy. Its voice is more natural when playing primal or elemental music. However, that is part of what I love about playing the Bach. It forces me to not give in to the natural tendencies of the instrument, and helps bring balance to [my] playing.”

Meyer will follow the Bach burner with a selection of his own compositions played solo at Hahn Hall, the pieces as yet unannounced but drawn from a period spanning the last 20 years. “I try to present as varied a look as is possible with my limited output: Some long, some short, some more serious, some more light hearted, etc.,” he said. “[But] I wish more of them were easier to play.”


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