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Civil War tragedy ‘Cold Mountain’ inspires opera

"Cold Mountain," the bestselling Civil War novel by Charles Frazier, tells the story of a Confederate soldier who decides he has had enough and walks away in search of the woman he left behind. Now that epic has been distilled into a work of opera, created by celebrated composer Jennifer Higdon. Jeffrey Brown reports from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now to the making of a new opera from a story set amid the horror of the Civil War. The second performance is tonight in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

    Jeffrey Brown was there for the premiere this weekend.

    In the new opera "Cold Mountain," we first meet W.P. Inman at a Confederate military hospital in Virginia, as he and other soldiers mourn the loss of yet another fallen comrade.

    (SINGING)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Wounded and sick of war's horror, Inman decides he's had enough and walks away, a deserter, towards Ada Monroe, the woman he left behind in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina.

    The opera's composer is Jennifer Higdon.

    JENNIFER HIGDON, Composer, "Cold Mountain": I realized that I grew up so close to Cold Mountain, that the people and the landscape, their speech patterns, the language, that it felt like something that I knew well enough to be the subject of a first opera.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Really? It felt familiar, as in these are my people or this is my land?

  • JENNIFER HIGDON:

    Yes, actually, yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes?

  • JENNIFER HIGDON:

    And I thought to myself, well, there's a lot of love and death in this, and those are big opera themes, so it seemed perfect.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Higdon was raised on the Tennessee side of those mountains. Her parents loved rock 'n' roll. There was no classical music in her childhood.

  • JENNIFER HIGDON:

    No opera at all, unless you count "Grand Ole Opry." But I…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Years later, Higdon is one of the most celebrated and performed composers in the country, with a Pulitzer Prize and constant stream of commissions for orchestral and chamber music. But she had never tried her hand at opera.

  • JENNIFER HIGDON:

    Actually, if you have to have an opera premiering somewhere grand, this is the perfect place.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The Santa Fe Opera is renowned company in a spectacular setting, surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Northern New Mexico, drama in the scenery and sometimes in the skies above.

    And you get thunder and lightning.

  • JENNIFER HIGDON:

    It could be cannon fire.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Eighteen years ago, lightning struck for a then unknown writer named Charles Frazier, who was making his living teaching in colleges. "Cold Mountain," his first novel, one he based loosely on Homer's Odyssey, spent 61 weeks on the top of the bestseller list, won a National Book Award, and has sold more than three million copies.

    In 2003 came "Cold Mountain," the film, and now the opera. And Frazier and his family were there for the premiere.

    Did you have any sense of the phenomenon that you were creating when you were writing this book?

    CHARLES FRAZIER, Author, "Cold Mountain": Oh, my gosh, no. I mean, the whole time I was working on it, I was thinking, don't ever go sit down at the desk worrying whether it's going to be published or not.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Never mind a movie, an opera.

  • CHARLES FRAZIER:

    Exactly.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Millions of people reading, right?

  • CHARLES FRAZIER:

    I think the biggest thing I ever let myself hope for was that I would get a better teaching schedule out of it.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The opera is told through alternating episodes, the perilous journey of Inman, hunted by the Home Guard militia looking for deserters, Ada and her friend Ruby's struggle to survive amid war's deprivations.

    We also see flashbacks to the lovers' early courtship just before the war. Getting from page to stage took several years. Higdon worked with librettist Gene Scheer, who distilled the sprawling epic into a theatrical story in which words are now at the service of music.

  • GENE SCHEER, Librettist:

    The job of librettist is really to structure the story in a way that invites music in. I'm looking for musical possibilities, musical situations and moments that ask to be sung.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And then to add the words to that music.

  • GENE SCHEER:

    And then to add the words to it.

    The worst thing I think you could do is just take the book and put it on the stage. The idea is not to be faithful to the letter of the source, but to the spirit of the source.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That's perhaps seen most dramatically in the set designed by Robert Brill.

    LEONARD FOGLIA, Director, "Cold Mountain": In our beautiful country we're there.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Veteran theater and opera director Leonard Foglia says he wanted an abstract environment, suggesting a shattered world, as opposed to the rich detail of the natural world in the novel.

  • LEONARD FOGLIA:

    I can't compete with it. I can't compete with the film. I can't compete with people's imaginations. We have all walked in the woods. We all know what that is. And I knew I couldn't do that, and so I wasn't going to even try. So, I was going to just try to get to what I think is the soul of the book and the soul of the story.

    The main character in this, Inman, he's been gutted, is one of the phrases that Charles uses in the book and we use it in the opera. And I wanted an environment that's been gutted.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Director Foglia assembled an all-star cast, including baritone Nathan Gunn as Inman, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as Ada, and Jay Hunter Morris as Teague, the evil and murderous leader of the Home Guard.

    You kind of enjoy playing the role?

    JAY HUNTER MORRIS, Tenor "Cold Mountain": It's great fun. I like to put on the outfit and strap on the gun or, you know, a peg leg or a big flowing wig or something.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And open your voice, your mouth.

  • JAY HUNTER MORRIS:

    And tell a story, yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Like Jennifer Higdon, Morris grew up without classical music in his life. He discovered opera in his 20s. The Texas native has an advantage here.

  • JAY HUNTER MORRIS:

    The swing of the Southern accent is constantly in my ear. I am so happy to not have to work too strenuously on the dialect, you know? If I take on a role that's Russian or Czech or even German, it's — I spend many, many hours and weeks and months toiling, trying to get the flavors.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Sound like a Russian or an Italian or something?

  • JAY HUNTER MORRIS:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But here, this sounds familiar to you?

  • JAY HUNTER MORRIS:

    It's pretty — it's a lot easier than singing in Czech, I will tell you that.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    An hour before opening night, we join Morris in, yes, the bathroom.

    Do you always do this in the bathroom?

  • JAY HUNTER MORRIS:

    It's my favorite spot. It's where the best acoustics are.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Nearby, Isabel Leonard was being transformed into Ada. And on stage, some last-minute fight scenes were rehearsed.

    Outside, in the parking lot, some "Cold Mountain"-appropriate banjo playing, as patrons took part in the Santa Fe version of tailgating. Then it was on with the show. The day before, I had asked composer Jennifer Higdon about the prospects for her opera.

    It's hard to get a new opera launched and into the canon or get it performed again.

  • JENNIFER HIGDON:

    Right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Are you?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JENNIFER HIGDON:

    Apprehensive?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In fact, spoiler alert for those who don't know the story, unlike Inman, "Cold Mountain" the opera has a good chance to survive and thrive. Opera houses in Philadelphia, Minnesota and North Carolina have already agreed to present "Cold Mountain."

    And on opening night here, composer, artistic team, novelist and cast took their bows to a standing ovation.

    For PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The Santa Fe Opera has announced another ambitious project. The company has commissioned an opera about the co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs. The work will look at how Jobs faced his own mortality and explore the events and people that shaped and inspired him. It's set to premiere during the 2017 season.

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