The American composer tells it on the mountain with her gritty, moving and award-winning Civil War-era opera.

Congratulations on producing such an intense, moving and multi-faceted new work. How long did it take, and how hard was it to find a subject for what is your first opera?

First, thank you for the wonderful compliment. The search for a story for the opera actually took me something like five years. I felt it was important to find a literary work that really resonated for me, and then there is always the struggle of getting the rights. I had a few stories that had to be discarded because the rights didn’t come through. When my librettist and I hit upon Cold Mountain, it felt like a fantastic fit. When I started the composing process, I worked for 28 months with most of that time spent composing and orchestrating, seven days a week. It was like living within the novel.

Apart from it’s compelling story, what specifically appealed about Cold Mountain from an operatic perspective?

On the most basic level, love and death seemed to drive so much of the story; it’s also very dramatic, especially in terms of the relationships and the backdrop of the Civil War. And it was appealing to see how some of the characters transformed throughout the story, how they grew and changed (Ada and Ruby in particular). I also really wanted action, so that the audience would see things happening on the stage. My other concern was having a balance of large ensemble pieces (ie. choral numbers) with contrasting arias, duets, trios, quartets, and quintets. I wanted a constant shifting of these groups, so that it would be a more interesting listening experience.

What kind of decisions did you make about how to use music to convey period, place and character?

This was one of my favourite aspects of the compositional process. At the start, I realized I wanted to create references to mountain (or bluegrass) music. Having come from that part of the U.S., this would be a natural step for me. After speaking with Kevin Burdette (who sings Stobrod…a character in the story who fiddles), I decided to write a fiddling part for him to play on stage. Having written bluegrass-related music before – in my Concerto 4-3 – I knew that I could rely on standard bluegrass techniques such as open strings, drones, an emphasis on offbeats, and a “bluesy” kind of feel to the language. I also thought about specific orchestration effects for each main character.

Inman is often represented by brass, and frequently with the middle of the chord missing (because he felt “hollowed out” by the war). Ruby has a brain that runs at high speed and is nervous, so her music always moves at a quick clip (I also use metal non-pitched percussion quite a bit, to represent farm tools, as this is a big part of her relationship with Ada). Teague, who is one nasty fellow, always has snake-like sounds accompanying him (percussion used to sound like a rattle snake). So there were lots of small touches that provide, at least on a subliminal level, a colouring for each individual.

There are some smart dramaturgical choices (Ada and Ruby’s first encounter for example), and a few different emphases than in the book (Ruby and Ada bond more slowly, Teague appears far earlier). How closely did you work with your librettist to pull those off?

Gene Scheer and I worked closely together from the start of the entire process. We worked hard to determine which episodes from this massive novel we would use because my one hard rule was that the opera could be no more than two-and-a-half hours. We made a general outline, following the main characters through episodes where they each transform in some way and tried to move the story along for the audience. Knowing where to start and where to end helps to decide what needs to be in the middle of the story and also what needs to be left out. The biggest challenge was making our bad guy, Teague, feel threatening, even though he doesn’t meet our protagonist (Inman) until the end of the opera; the audience needed to sense he was dangerous and creepy. He’s the first person that the audience sees, and the first five minutes of the opera is filled with an unexpected twist, right off the bat.

You grew up not far from Cold Mountain. How did that affect or inform your work?

It was absolutely important in the compositional process. I felt like I knew these people, the way they thought and spoke, and the physical and emotional landscape of that area, especially in terms of the Civil War. I am very familiar with the sound of mountain music. It was honestly some of the most natural-feeling music I’ve ever written.

It’s a long, rich, ambitious work. Was it a conscious decision not to ‘fillet’ the book?

I am pleased that you feel this way, because I feel like we had to actually fillet the book because so much happens in Inman’s journey (as well as for Ada and Ruby). The story needed to be clear on the stage (with music providing some of the clues of the scenes), and move at a quick enough pace so that it is engaging for the audience. That meant we had to leave a lot out to accomplish faster pacing. It’s a real compliment that you would ask this question.

Having written your first opera, looking back, would you have done anything differently?

Probably not. I made some minor revisions during the Santa Fe rehearsals, but I tend not to look back at things… maybe because I have so many commissions that I must move along to the next piece. I’ve written 14 works since completing Cold Mountain, and all of those have had tight deadlines (10 have been premiered), so I try not to sit around and ponder the “what if’s”.

Do you have any plans for a second opera?

I actually do. As soon as Cold Mountain premiered, I received four different offers for opera commissions, so I am in the process of looking at stories and trying to think about what might make an interesting challenge for the next opera.  I think the next one will be a chamber opera, since that’s so different from a grand opera. Wish me luck!

Higdon: Cold Mountain (Santa Fe Opera)
★★★★☆ Powerful new US opera comes out on top.

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