Art Lovers: Riders of the Purple Sage

Etched Magazine

In just the first few pages of Zane Grey’s classic novel, Riders of the Purple Sage, fearless gunslingers and men on horseback tear through unforgiving mountains as emotions become as extreme as their surroundings: jealousy looms like a fatal precipice, and love ignites like a brushfire.

It’s a fitting opening for a story where the land and its inhabitants are inextricably linked, where every action takes its cue from the rough terrain, the lush plant life that thrives in spite of challenges, the rhythms of horse hooves and the crashing of storms.

It’s also a perfect beginning for an opera.

“It embodies the elements, vibe, and atmosphere of the classic American West,” says composer Craig Bohmler.

Bohmler, along with librettist Steven Mark Kohn, is responsible for a fascinating new take on Riders of the Purple Sage. Together, they bring Grey’s most famous novel to Arizona Opera in a series of performances this season.

In this world premiere production, Bohmler adds, “The horses, the guns, the heroines, the bandits, the rustlers—all of the elements iconic to this eternally endearing genre are brought to life in a new way on the operatic stage.”

As it casts a new light on Grey’s work, Riders will also bring about a historic collaboration between the great chronicler of the West and a likeminded artist.

The opera’s scenic design is by famed Southwest landscape artist Ed Mell, whose color-saturated paintings of angular golden sunsets, jagged cliffs and regal riders bring the story to thrilling life. This will be the first time his work is seen on the grand scale of the stage.

With a masked rider, an outlaw, and the edge-of-your-seat suspense of guns drawn and horses stampeding, not a moment of the story lacks drama. And it’s no surprise that Bohmler heard music in its pages. Grey’s purple sage grows in a place where wind shrieks, streams murmur, and melancholy birdsong wafts through solitary canyons.

Bringing the rough and tumble Western genre to the refined arena of classical music, Riders will become the cornerstone of Arizona Opera’s groundbreaking Arizona Bold initiative, and the company’s first-ever world premiere.

According to Kristin Atwell, an Emmy-winning documentarian who is capturing the opera’s development on film, “It should be a high-water mark for art in Arizona, out here in the Wild West.”

A story of the Wild West, and of Home

In Riders of the Purple Sage, the intrepid gunslinger Lassiter becomes an unlikely companion to Jane Withersteen, a pacifist Mormon woman equally devoted to her religion and her integrity. 

When Lassiter arrives on the scene looking to avenge the death of his sister, Jane has found her beloved Mormon community beginning to turn against her. Following her heart, she refuses to marry a Mormon Elder as expected, and on top of that, she has been employing Bern Venters, a Gentile. Meanwhile, as Venters seeks refuge from Mormon persecution, he meets a masked rider whose fearsome horseback skill belies a secret: she’s actually a young woman.

“Lassiter is the John Wayne of opera – a badass cowboy who gets to ride in and save the day,” says Ryan Taylor, who commissioned the opera as General Director of Arizona Opera.

Fittingly, the opera’s creators have brought in elements of epic soundscapes, sweeping orchestral sounds, romantic duets that a fan of La bohème might recognize, and motifs that call to mind movies like “The Magnificent Seven” and “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

“Everyone’s stakes are high,” says Bohmler. “Jane has to save the religion in her valley, no matter what. Lassiter has to get revenge for Millie’s death. Venters has to get the hell out of town with his newfound love because it’s not safe to be a Gentile there. The Bishop must keep the community together.”

Like the dramatic topography surrounding them, each of the opera’s protagonists seems both outsized and natural.

 “Westerns represent who we think we are and who we want to be,” says Atwell, an Arizona native. “It’s part of our character as Americans.”

Ultimately, Taylor adds, “The opera is about people trying to find home.”

Challenging Issues

By drawing on the strengths of timeless art forms to create something new, Riders finds contemporary resonance in Zane Grey’s text, grappling with issues that are still a part of our daily lives. 

 “The book is a little over 100 years old now and it deals with things like environmental conservation, women’s rights, the right to bear arms and fundamentalism,” says Taylor.

Riders remains as vivid, bold and tough as its terrain as it delves into multiple conflicts. The opera illuminates tensions between Mormons and Gentiles, outcasts and society, and expectations for women versus their desire – and ability – to take control of their lives. 

Yet whichever side of ideological divides its characters are on, none of them give up on the search for a better life – even if they have to change lifelong habits, even if a gunshot rips through one’s chest, even if the most feared rustlers in the land chase after them.

When the story was written, “the country was looking for a national identity – part of it was the pioneer aesthetic, manifest destiny with the bounty of land resources, rugged individualism,” says Atwell.

“It’s a very specifically American story that will cut across party lines, that should appeal to an incredibly wide range of people.”

Becoming an Opera

The beginnings of Riders of the Purple Sage, the opera, were as serendipitous as Venters meeting his masked rider.

“My husband and I were at Payson, Arizona, hiking outside of Strawberry,” says Bohmler. 

When a downpour hit, the pair wandered into the Zane Grey museum to wait out the storm, Fascinated by the movie posters that brought him back to his childhood, the composer went on to read the novel that would become his next project.

“ I love Westerns – what boy growing up didn’t love Westerns?” he says.

“I was about five pages into it before I realized – this is a very operatic opening. 50 pages in, I thought, if Verdi were alive, this is the kind of story he’d set to music.”

As Taylor points out, evocative settings often become so important as to seem like a main character in opera – Paris in La bohème, Nagasaki in Madama Butterfly.

Of course, those operas don’t pose quite the same challenges. When Bohmler and Kohn first approached Arizona Opera’s general manager, the immediate question was, “How are you going to deal with the horses?”

Thankfully, the 21st century has an advantage over those 19th century classics: high-quality video projections that can make you feel like you’re right inside the action.

With this idea in mind, Bohmler reached out to Atwell, and pieces of the project tumbled down like one of Grey’s avalanches. When Bohmler told her the story of Jane Withersteen defending her ranch in the 1870s, Atwell immediately thought of Mell’s paintings. The artist readily signed on, and the results have been better than its creators could have hoped. 

“It complements everything Craig and Steve have done musically and dramatically,” Atwell says.

Riders of the Purple Sage has had two enthusiastically received workshops, one building to a standing ovation after Act II, including some audience members who had flown all the way from San Francisco. About half of the audience had never been to an opera before. 

“This piece is alive,” Kohn says. “It’s strong, visceral, emotional. It’s an intimate story involving a handful of characters in very personal situations, but set against such an epic, eternal backdrop of mesas and mountains and powerful music that it amplifies the human story.”

It has become clear that even to those new to the art form, the opera has come to embody the relevance and romance of the American West, on a scale suited to its breathtaking grandeur. As its premiere date nears, Riders of the Purple Sage is ready to leap from the page to the stage, championing a legendary spirit that lives on today, in Arizona and beyond.