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Love in the Western World

Charles Wuorinen's opera, based on Annie Proulx's heartbreaking love story "Brokeback Mountain," bows in January at Madrid's Teatro Real. By PHILIP KENNICOTT

Love in the Western World sm 114
Wuorinen and Proulx
© Javier del Real

Strictly speaking, Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain" isn't a gay love story. Proulx's 1997 short story — the inspiration for Ang Lee's 2005 film of the same name, which won Academy Awards for best adapted screenplay and best director, and an opera by Charles Wuorinen — Brokeback Mountain deals with the gray area of same-sex desire that isn't politically aware enough to merit the label "gay." Neither Jack nor Ennis, the laconic cowboys in this tale of love between two men who meet while herding sheep in the mountains of Wyoming, ever reaches the point of declaring who he is, or discarding the shame that society heaps upon their desperate, hidden, floundering romance. The story spans nearly twenty years, from the 1960s to the early '80s, during which a riot at the Stonewall Inn in New York City launched the modern gay-rights movement, but Jack and Ennis exist in the shadows of history, unaware that other men and women about their age were forging the possibility of a future without prejudice, violence and despair.

Wuorinen, one of this country's most distinguished composers, saw the Lee film years ago and was inspired by its operatic possibilities. In 2007, he approached Proulx about refashioning the story into a libretto, and she agreed. While other composers might have found the taciturn and often painfully inarticulate characters a challenge, Wuorinen was inspired. Brokeback Mountain was a struggle toward the possibility of expression, about a groping toward language and awareness and self-knowledge. "I take the position that since it takes a long time for any word to get out, that what is laconic on the page can seem quite expansive on the opera stage," he says.

Wuorinen is a remarkably productive composer. At thirty-two, he won the Pulitzer Prize for music, and sixteen years later he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a "Genius Grant." In 2004, his Haroun and the Sea of Stories, based on the children's book by Salman Rushdie, had its premiere at New York City Opera. It was his second full-length opera but the first to be given a major production. It was a comedy, very different in tone from the darker, more anguished Brokeback Mountain, which will receive its world premiere at the Teatro Real in Madrid on January 28.

While other composers steeped in the modernist language of the twentieth century have embraced tonal idioms, Wuorinen is steadfastly committed to a musical style rooted in the sonic adventures of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. He can be impatient, even prickly, when asked about this. "This is a subject of which I am fairly tired," he says. But it is a fatigue born of fighting against the grain, of defending a musical style that isn't strictly twelve-tone, not atonal in the sense of Schoenberg's early, free-flowing experiments, and certainly not "serial," which Wuorinen says applies to the limited and esoteric compositional strategies pursued (and abandoned) by Pierre Boulez and other avant-garde European composers in the 1950s. "I have never had anything to do with that," says Wuorinen, whose music is expressionist and dense and vocally lyrical in an angular way.

A Wuorinen setting of Annie Proulx's cowboy romance is a deliciously unorthodox development. Last summer, Santa Fe Opera gave the premiere of Theodore Morrison's Oscar, a bio-drama based on the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, the Irish wit who became a gay martyr after being convicted of "gross indecency" in 1895. Morrison's music, essentially tonal, with strong flavors of Shostakovich and Stravinsky, was punctuated by melodic expostulations in a Hollywood film style — sweeping, lyrical appeals to the audience's desire to see Wilde as a sympathetic, deeply wronged character. Another opera that broached the subject of same-sex desire, Terrence Blanchard's jazz-inflected Champion, opened at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in June, and it too used occasional musical-theater melodic appeal to underscore the emotional confusion and yearning of its title character, a world-famous boxer who happened to be homosexual. But Wuorinen isn't a torch-song composer, and Proulx's libretto makes no concessions to the kind of sentimentality that has crept into more mainstream treatment of gay themes. In their hands, Brokeback Mountain remains as rugged and wild as the landscape that plays an intimate role in shaping the characters' lives.

"Opera should deploy the full resources of musical composition and not be restricted to any kind of model, including a model of what is lyric singing," says Wuorinen. The composer's personal litany of great opera is revealing — the works of Monteverdi, "some of Wagner," Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, Stravinsky's Rake's Progress, and of course the operas of Alban Berg. "You can tell where my sympathies lie."

And where lay the sympathies of Gérard Mortier, who commissioned the opera after he was designated general director of City Opera in 2007. Mortier gave up that position while still serving as interim leader, but he took the project to the Teatro Real, where he became general director in 2010. Despite Mortier's recent cancer diagnosis and his altered title at the Real (he is now the company's "artistic advisor"), planning for the new opera continued without interruption. Mortier scheduled its premiere in close proximity to a production of Tristan und Isolde, and in a statement released before he resigned, he celebrated Wuorinen's approach: "Wuorinen understood that he could support Proulx's idea through his music, but also that he needed a great formal conception to avoid sentimentalism, just as Wagner did." And he took a brief swipe at the movie version: "Next to the film of Brokeback Mountain, which was rather sentimental and closer to Puccini, Wuorinen will serve the essential dimension of Annie Proulx's fabulous novel [sic]."

Wuorinen calls his work with Proulx "one of the happiest collaborations I've ever enjoyed." Proulx's libretto is a thoroughgoing new work of literature, with the addition of a substantial quantity of muscular, vernacular poetry to articulate the characters' inner thoughts. These lyrical additions are a pleasant surprise, suggesting that Proulx has serious poetry chops, even if she doesn't use them. "I asked her if she had ever considered writing poetry," says Wuorinen, "and she said no, she's a reader of poetry." But Wuorinen detects a latent facility for the form, even if Proulx doesn't acknowledge it.

As Wuorinen developed musical characterization for his cowboys, he turned to Schoenberg's experimental half-sung, half-spoken Sprechstimme for inspiration. In Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, Moses laments his "awkward tongue," his inability to put complex thought into comprehensible words: "Meine Zunge ist ungelenk, ich kann denken, aber nicht reden" [My tongue is awkward, I can think but not speak]. In Brokeback Mountain, says Wuorinen, Ennis "can't acknowledge who he is, what he is, until too late, when he has lost the one thing he valued." And so, like Moses, Ennis expresses himself first with a kind of pitched speech, only developing into sung lines in the second of the opera's two acts. The evolution parallels his capacity for self-expression, though as in Proulx's original story, this dim awareness becomes explicit to himself only in a final, excruciating, primal realization of loss.

The two central characters are associated with different pitches, B-natural and C-sharp, a whole step apart, yet divided by a third tonal area associated with the mountain itself, based on a low C. "The note between, C-natural, I regard as the note of death," says Wuorinen, recalling its role at the end of Bach's St. Matthew Passion and a long history of powerful but now vestigial associations between tones and ideas. This "foundation note for the mountain," he says, "betokens power and often a certain freedom and peace, and also it is menace." The two characters, musically close but eternally separated, "converge on this disaster." The musical presence of the mountain, introduced in the opera's prelude, distinguishes the stage work from the film, where the setting, while starkly beautiful, was a neutral presence. In the opera, Proulx and Wuorinen develop an almost magical power to the mountain, as if it instigated the love that tortures the two men.

This musical organizing principle, like so many other things in Wuorinen's music, is deep and structural, and not necessarily immediately audible; so, too, the composer's brief reference to the musical language that would have surrounded Jack and Ennis if they were real-life residents of Wyoming. "There are no cowboy songs," says Wuorinen, who says "that would have been out of character" for him. There is, however, one tiny reference to the musical argot of honky-tonks and AM radio, just as the two men enter a bar to get to know each other in Act I. But, he adds, "That is so attenuated, I probably shouldn't mention it."

That sense of discipline is characteristic of Wuorinen, whose music rarely if ever courts the listener with the blandishments of the familiar. Yet, as he and Proulx built the story up into a libretto, conventional operatic devices weren't entirely discarded. "We stuck in a ghost," he says, mischievously, referring to the father of Lureen, Jack's wife. The ghost, in a brief appearance, is accompanied by bass trombones and is given the opera's only moment of levity. "We both thought it up simultaneously," says Wuorinen. "You can't have an opera without a ghost, so let's put one in."

Wuorinen composed his opera during a period of unprecedented and rapid change in the attitudes to gay people in the U.S. He finished the basic score in early 2012, just before two major decisions by the Supreme Court substantially advanced the right of same-sex couples to marry. But the appeal of the story had less to do with the politics of gay identity than with its old-fashioned virtues as a story of doomed love. "For me, the gay aspect is less important than the fact that it is a kind of contemporary version of certain love-affair problems that underlie the warhorse nineteenth-century operas," says Wuorinen. It isn't exactly love versus duty, but it is love that can't work itself out to a happy conclusion because of inexorable obstacles created by society. And those obstacles, despite great progress in some parts of the country, haven't necessarily disappeared in Wyoming, where a young gay man named Matthew Shepherd was beaten to death in 1998, sparking international outrage and much national soul-searching, though little real change in one of the most conservative states in the union. Wuorinen, who is married to his partner, arts manager Howard Stokar, says that Proulx "seems to feel that a lot of attitudes haven't changed."

So far, there aren't yet plans for an American production, though Wuorinen says that there have been "nibbles" of interest, and there will be a DVD of the Madrid production. But the story continues to fascinate, and Wuorinen's musical treatment of it adds new dimensions to what has emerged as one of the central American narratives of our time. At movie theaters, Brokeback Mountain recouped more than ten times its minuscule budget of $14 million and settled deep into the popular consciousness, despite its unrelenting sadness. Jack and Ennis have become universal figures, transcending their own painfully circumscribed consciousness, the particulars of time and place, dress and language, and Proulx's original narrative. Translating their story into opera would ordinarily come with risks familiar from operas past — the tendency of the form to sentimentalize and trivialize its literary inspiration. But one can be almost certain that Wuorinen won't go in that direction. The Italian tradition of lyric opera doesn't interest him very much, either. So don't expect his twentieth-century characters to speak with the heart-on-sleeve emotional transparency of Puccini or Verdi or the bel canto masters. Wuorinen is painfully aware of the basic dilemma at the heart of Proulx's original tale: love hits them like a cataclysm, beyond their understanding, beyond the capacity of music to limit or contain. spacer

PHILIP KENNICOTT is the Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic of The Washington Post.

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6