Like so many other Arizona transplants, composer Craig Bohmler fell in love with the spare beauty of the Southwestern landscape, and that love led him to his attempt to create the great American Western opera.
Bohmler was on a hiking trip to Payson in summer 2010 when a rainstorm forced him to seek entertainment indoors. So he and his partner visited the Zane Grey Cabin, a cozy museum dedicated to the author who defined the Western genre. Intrigued by what he had learned, Bohmler went home, fired up his Kindle and started browsing titles.
“I went, ‘Oh, “Riders of the Purple Sage,” I like that,’ ” Bohmler recalls. “ ‘It’s exotic, sexy, rhythmic. I think I’ll read that one.’
“I was three pages in before I went, ‘This piece sings.’ I was 10 pages in before I went, ‘Good thing Verdi isn’t alive, or we’d have an opera written on this.’ I was 20 pages in it before I went, ‘I have to write another opera.’ ”
“Purple Sage” — Grey’s most famous novel — takes one step closer to a musical reincarnation this month as Arizona Opera presents workshop performances of the first two acts of Bohmler’s adaptation. It is the first time the Phoenix-based company has dipped its toe into the development of a new opera, and this month’s workshops, including feedback from audiences, will help determine what the future of the work will be.
“I was kind of blindsided by this. I just wasn’t looking for a piece,” says Bohmler, who is best-known as a musical-theater composer.
“I had written three operas and wasn’t going to write another — didn’t need to write another. They’re hard. They’re hard to get produced, they’re hard to write. But it spoke so strongly to me. The heightened emotions. The woman alone, combating the society in which she finds herself. Enter the gunfighter to avenge the death of his sister, who had her child taken away from her and then died of a broken heart.
“Tell me that doesn’t sound operatic.”
New opera territory
First published in 1912, “Riders of the Purple Sage” is set four decades earlier in southwestern Utah, in a small Mormon town during the era of plural marriage. The story’s heroine is Jane Withersteen, a 28-year-old spinster who finds herself in conflict with the corrupt leaders of her community, in part because of her friendship with the non-Mormon Bern Venters, but mostly because she refuses to marry and give up ownership of the ranch she inherited from her father.
In addition to the grim gunfighter, Lassiter, the story also involves a mysterious Masked Rider. With secret identities and a few melodramatic surprises, it certainly has its share of opera-worthy moments, including a horse stampede that gives Bohmler a chance to compose his own answer to Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” not to mention the rich tradition of Western movie soundtracks.
Bohmler is no stranger to Western themes, having composed the musicals “The Haunting of Winchester,” about the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, and “Sacagewea,” about the Shoshone guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But, he says:
“There is no American Western opera. Puccini wrote ‘La Fanciulla del West,’ but that’s not an American Western opera. And there’s ‘The Ballad of Baby Doe,’ but that doesn’t have the horses and the gunfights and everything that goes with an American Western. ...
“This is the culmination of everything I’ve done up to this point.”
Bohmler studied under opera composer Carlisle Floyd (“Susannah”) at the University of Houston and then the Houston Grand Opera Studio. He moved to Arizona in 1988, although for many years he divided his time between the Valley and the San Francisco Bay area.
In California he composed for Opera San Jose, the San Jose Repertory Theatre, the Willows Theatre and Nova Vista Symphony. Here in the Valley, his neo-noir musical “Gunmetal Blues” premiered at Phoenix Theatre in 1991 before moving on to New York and rave reviews. He also partnered with Phoenix Theatre on “All the More to Love” and children’s musicals “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” and “Unstoppable Me!”
“Since 1998 I’ve been a living composer. Most of us are dead before we make a living,” he quips.
In addition to musicals and operas, he has composed art songs, chamber music, wind symphonies and choral works. Bohmler also arranged classic arias and show tunes for “3 Redneck Tenors,” a successful touring show that landed a sit-down slot in Branson, Mo., home of Andy Williams’ Moon River Theatre and Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede.
“As we like to joke, he could write a four-voice fugue before breakfast,” says writer and composer Steven Mark Kohn, who’s serving as librettist for “Purple Sage.”
“He’s got tremendous craft. He does have the ability to come up with a great idea, but even more important than that, he has the ability to work with his material, and that is what a composer needs.”
Telling a good story
Kohn, who teaches composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music in Ohio, was Bohmler’s first recruit on the Zane Grey project. The two have been close friends for decades and collaborated on “Quiltmaker” and “Unstoppable.” But Kohn had never worked on an opera before.
“I know a number of operas, and there are a few that I love,” he says. “But my deeper love is American music theater. I know the whole canon, and Sondheim is the main dude. The difference that I find between the two is that the style of writing in music theater is more conversational. To me it’s more natural.
“I’m not an operatic expert, and I’m not going to pretend to be. In this piece, I’m a dramatist. All I care about is writing a piece that keeps you on the edge of your seat and tells a rollicking good story.”
Before the writing began, some decisions had to be made. To rhyme or not to rhyme, for one (no, mostly). Also, to what extent should the libretto re-create the frontier dialect of the characters in the novel?
“Carlisle Floyd said that we shouldn’t be too colloquial, and Craig and I love Carlisle and admire him very much and thought, ‘No, he’s wrong,’ ” Kohn says.
“The men, who are a little rougher, they’re a little more stylized. They’ll say ‘I reckon’ or they’ll leave a ‘g’ off of ‘going’ — ‘goin’ over there’ and ‘whaddya think.’ The women, particularly Jane, have to have a little more bearing. We can’t minimize her integrity or her intelligence in any way, so she tends to speak in a pretty clear, articulate fashion. It’s character-specific.”
Except for one pre-existing melody that Bohmler wanted for an Act Two aria, the writing of “Riders” is words first, then music. Kohn draws on Grey for the recitative (sung dialogue), while waxing a bit more poetic for the arias, duets, etc. Then Bohmler sets the words to music, editing along the way.
Stylistically, the opera draws on all of the composer’s influences. A few of the arias sound a bit more Broadway than La Scala, while the “recits” tend toward an angular, muscular modernism.
“One thing that I love about Craig as a composer is he’s not afraid to write pretty music,” says soprano Laura Wilde, who will sing the role of Jane at the workshops.
“A lot of times with modern music, people are so worried about what the critics will say that they’re afraid to make something accessible and enjoyable to the audience. And Craig, because of his background in musical theater, is not afraid to play with things like that.”
Design team enlisted
Even before the writing began in earnest, Bohmler began assembling a full creative team. With a strong female protagonist, he wanted a female director, so he called up his friend Candace Evans in Dallas, who recently directed “Roméo et Juliette” for Arizona Opera. She thought the project called for video projections, so Bohmler reached out to videographer Kristi Atwell. She in turn suggested they enlist famed Arizona artist Ed Mell, whose contemporary take on Western landscape would work perfectly.
“We are doing the thing that I’ve wanted to do for the last 20 years,” Bohmler says. “I’ve wanted to start with a design team at the nascent stages of a piece. Already Ed has said something about a visual that made me go home and rewrite the prelude.”
At the workshop performances, the lead roles will be performed by the four singers in Arizona Opera’s resident-artist program, including Wilde. She and her co-stars are also part of the creative process.
“If there’s something that doesn’t quite feel right, Craig is so open to changing that — if it’s the right choice,” Wilde says. “It’s a really unique experience for singers to have, especially young singers. You get to figure out things about your voice that you wouldn’t normally, because it pushes you, especially in the English language.
“One of the coolest things is there’s no standard by which to measure our performance. A lot of the classic stuff, people will have in their ears their favorite singer, and if you don’t have the same color in your voice or a different size of a voice, they can like or dislike the performance based on that. With this, I feel like people will be so much more focused on the story we’re telling, which is freeing.
“I am Jane. There’s no one else that’s Jane at this moment.”
What’s unusual about all of this is that the project got under way with no real prospects of making it to the stage. It was, Bohmler told his friends, “truly for nothing but fun.”
But when Arizona Opera found out about the piece, general director Scott Altman (who has since left the company) offered a partnership. Bohmler was brought on as composer-in-residence to work on the workshop production with the four young singers in the opera’s resident-artist program. (It didn’t hurt that Bohmler was already providing private vocal coaching for some of them, including Wilde.)
The deal put “Riders” further down the path toward a full production and got Arizona Opera into the new-work-development business in a low-cost, low-risk way.
“Usually a new opera is commissioned, so you have a home from the get-go,” Evans explains. “This has come this sideways route, because Craig just chose to write it. But he has said, and I agree with him, ‘There’s no question in my mind that somebody will want it.’ So there’s no fear involved. In fact, other companies have expressed interest. It’s just one of those things. You just know it’s right.”
The workshop performances will be like a reading of a new play. The singers will perform the first two acts of the opera at music stands, with minimal props. The response of the audience will help the creative team fine-tune the piece and help Arizona Opera gauge interest in a full production. (Best-case scenario: an “angel” investor plops down $1 million to keep the first American Western opera in Arizona.)
But no matter what its final fate will be, “Purple Sage” is already a success as a labor of love.
“I feel completely attached,” Wilde says. “I’ve seen the birth of it. But the nice thing is, because Craig and my relationship will continue no matter what, I’m going to be connected with it even if someone else is doing my role. We’ve kind of talked about the fact that I’m still a little young, vocally, to do everything that he’s going to ask Jane to do. But who knows, in two to three years? ...
“I’m definitely going to be poking and prodding him throughout the whole thing. If it has its day and I’m not a part of it, I hope I’m at the premiere at least.”