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Mountain Time

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon gives PHILIP KENNICOTT the scoop on her first opera, Cold Mountain, set for its world premiere in Santa Fe.

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Composer Jennifer Higdon, whose opera based on Charles Frazier’s novel opens in Santa Fe in August
© Sarah R. Bloom 2015
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Higdon with Cold Mountain novelist Charles Frazier
© Dario Acosta for the Santa Fe Opera 2015/“Works & Process at the Guggenheim 2015”
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A scene from Anthony Minghella’s 2003 film adaptation of Cold Mountain
© Miramax/Photofest 2015

“That’s one thing you don’t have to worry about when writing a violin concerto — you don’t have to think about killing off all these people,” says composer Jennifer Higdon. It’s been almost eight months since she finished the score to her first opera, Cold Mountain, which will receive its premiere on August 1 at Santa Fe Opera before traveling to Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera. But even now, when she says she’s “on the way to recovery” from the strain of composing the work, she tears up thinking about its main character, Inman, a wounded Civil War soldier who deserts to reunite with his beloved Ada. Based on the National Book Award-winning 1997 novel by Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain has no happy ending for its characters.

“It was hard killing him,” she says of Inman, a poetically inclined man who spends much of the novel wondering what the violence of war has done to his soul, to his capacity to love and be loved. “I had become so attached, I felt like I was protecting him for so long. I felt like I couldn’t face this.”

Writing an opera was not only a first for Higdon; it radically changed her usual habits. One of this country’s most successful and hard-working composers, Higdon was used to writing perhaps ten pieces a year, a mix of big and small works, full-sized concertos (she’s composed major scores for superstar soloists including violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Lang Lang) and compact chamber works. When she set to work on the music for Cold Mountain, which took two and a half years to compose, she says everything changed. She gave up traveling, interrupted a busy schedule of orchestra residencies and fund-raising appearances and stopped saying “yes” to new commissions.

“It felt like learning to walk,” she says of the long process of studying and digesting the form, finding a subject, developing the scenes and dealing with the logistical challenges of making it all work onstage.

Higdon, fifty-two, is extraordinarily down to earth. On a cold day in Washington, D.C., she arrives for an interview near the Library of Congress wearing sneakers and a long, dark overcoat. She doesn’t pretend to know where the music she writes comes from, and she doesn’t indulge in elaborate psychological explanations for the how and why of the opera she has spent years creating. She seems genuinely and pleasantly surprised by her good fortune, by the Pulitzer Prize for music she won for her Violin Concerto in 2010, by the happiness of having a good life, a wife, Cheryl Lawson (whom she met thirty-six years ago, when the two were in the same high-school band), a home (in Philadelphia, where she teaches at the Curtis Institute) and the ability to write music full time. 

The opera, however, has been an odyssey. Higdon credits Atlanta Symphony music director Robert Spano for suggesting the idea, about a decade ago. At the time, she was wary of the challenge. “For me to do it responsibly, I needed years of study,” she says. That involved checking out scores from the Curtis library, talking to veterans in the field and attending lots of premieres — John Adams’s Flowering Tree in Vienna; Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick in Dallas; Stewart Wallace’s Bonesetter’s Daughter in San Francisco. 

“I took in as much new opera as I could digest,” she says. Deciding on a story was a complicated and protracted affair, and it wasn’t clear that she could get the rights to set Cold Mountain, which had already been made into a 2003 movie by Miramax. Eventually, she approached Charles Frazier and his wife, Katherine, directly, and the author was encouraging. (It helped, perhaps, that in between her first e-mail and her followup, she won that Pulitzer Prize.) Having grown up in the south and spent much of her childhood on a forty-acre farm in Eastern Tennessee, not far from the novel’s North Carolina setting, may have helped too.

“You have to pick a story you like, because boy are you going to live with these characters for a long time,” she says. “As the crow flies, from the farm I lived on to Cold Mountain, it is probably forty to sixty miles. So this was probably the best place to start, with a story where I understand the people, how they think, the way they speak, what they worry about.” As she dug deeper into the story, she also realized she had a project that fitted her temperament exceptionally well. “It felt more like me than anything I’ve ever written.”

The long learning process crystallized her thoughts about the form: a commitment to textual clarity and a sense of motion, or eventfulness, were her essential goals. Learning how to achieve the former, she says, was like “having my brain rewired.” She had written choral works and songs before, so she wasn’t a novice at writing for the voice. But opera steered her away from her comfort zone, from a primary commitment to instrumental texture, color, line and rhythm. Now, she says, she hears everything, including pop songs, through a new filter, with words paramount. 

The commitment to motion was an extension of her instrumental aesthetic into a new form. Higdon, whose style is dynamic, colorful and generally lyrical, isn’t interested in static or ponderous music; she likes her works to move along smartly, with idea following idea. “That’s my logo — ‘No Long Anything.’” But even fans of Frazier’s Cold Mountain have noted that the book doesn’t move with the pace of a Hollywood thriller; its charms lie in the language, a languorous dialect that bears traces of a remote and rough-hewn Victorian reserve. And the novel’s basic structure, which follows one character in constant motion (Homer’s Odyssey is often cited as inspiration) through the thickets and dangers of backwoods North Carolina while another builds a domestic haven near the eponymous Cold Mountain, created enormous challenges for the composer and her librettist, Gene Scheer. Inman, says Higdon, meets dozens of people along the way, while his beloved Ada and her farmhand and companion Ruby are rooted in place, making a life, tilling the earth. The two narrative arcs might create an intractable fusion of musical opposites — flowing episodes and stasis. 

Higdon and Scheer distilled scenes from the 450-page novel that were particularly strong in character development (“We made sure we were always on those characters”), and then Higdon plotted out the whole opera, scene by scene, on what sounds like a Hollywood storyboard. “I had to try to visualize it to figure out how to do it,” she says. “How long do you need for a costume change? We have a flashback, how long will that take?” Setting a novel that sprawls with minor characters also meant economizing on singers: were there opportunities for one vocalist to play multiple roles? Referencing the financial limitations of opera companies, she says, “We tried to make it practical.” 

Capturing the characters, and the landscape they inhabit, allowed Higdon to draw upon her formidable skills as an orchestrator and colorist. She decided to forgo a dulcimer, which was a standard household instrument during her youth, including in her own home. (“I try to think practically about what is in the performing ensemble,” she says.) But bluegrass isn’t far from the surface in the opera, with country fiddling and one character even doubling as an onstage violinist. Inman, she says, called for a particular sound, something “hollowed out” and spectral, something that suggested his own doubts about his psyche and soul. “I used a lot of open fifths to represent that damage, almost just intervals at times,” she says.

The result is a work with some twenty-five scenes over slightly less than two and a half hours. Higdon stresses the economy of each small chapter: “I kept saying, ‘Get to the point. What is the point of this scene?’ I didn’t dally over anything.” She envisions a production in which Inman’s travels will be on one side of the stage while the lives of Ada and Ruby play out on the other, with relatively quick cuts between them. But then she stops and says she doesn’t actually know how director Leonard Foglia will present the work. “I just needed that vision in my head to make it work,” she says. Foglia, however, was on the other end of numerous phone calls, as Higdon asked for advice on how the music should serve the mechanics of the drama.

Higdon is one of the most frequently performed composers working in America today. Her discussion of process and how she came to be a composer suggests part of the appeal of her music. Growing up in Tennessee, with a father who was in advertising, she was exposed to the popular music of the day — the Beatles, Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan — and to the vernacular bluegrass music that was all around her. She came late to classical music, matriculating as a primarily self-taught student of flute at Bowling Green University, where she discovered not only the corpus of the classical repertoire but her own gift for composing. Her student days were spent on remedial courses, theory, ear-training, basic piano, and she felt a low-grade but relentless anxiety about mastering the basics and a continual need to catch up. 

“It felt frustrating at the time,” she says. “But now that I am past all the schooling, it feels like it might have been an advantage.”

That “need to catch up” doesn’t seem to have left her even now, with dozens of commissions, constant travel and a faculty position at one of this country’s most prestigious conservatories. She talks often of “responsibility” and a desire to serve the needs of those who commission her works. The joy of being at Curtis, she says, is access to great young musicians, whom she regularly queries about what is and isn’t possible musically. As a woman who grew up in the south but now lives in Philadelphia; as an international composer who doesn’t live in her country’s cultural capital, New York City; as a woman married to another woman and working in a traditionally male-dominated field; and as a composer steeped first in pop and bluegrass but now thriving on commissions from major orchestras and opera companies, Higdon is an outsider’s insider.

Does that, perhaps, have something to do with her music, with its unself-conscious appeal, with the sense that often the past is lurking just under its surface? Asked if there’s something about her autodidact past and all that catching up in her earlier years that might have formed how she writes music, she says, “I think so, but I am so close to the entire experience that I’m not sure.” Then she starts talking about being a girl in Atlanta, with her father, going to art happenings and experimental film festivals and museums — an idyll, it seems, before she moved, at age ten, to that farm in Tennessee.

It sounds curiously like the character of Ada, raised in sophisticated Charleston only to find herself stranded on a farm far from the city, near Cold Mountain.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” says Higdon, laughing. And then, more seriously, “There were so many things in this book that I identified with.” She says that while she was immersed in the opera, her wife, Cheryl, would ask her, “Where are you?” And the answer seemed to be Cold Mountain, not Philadelphia. And though finding the story was something of an accident, or at least the result of a lot of strategic looking, the result was a rediscovery of place and self. 

“This will sound funny, but I spent so much time walking in the mountains there,” she says. “It is so familiar to me.” Which doesn’t sound funny at all. spacer 

PHILIP KENNICOTT, chief art critic for The Washington Post, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. 

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