It’s not often art lovers get to see a work in progress let alone contribute to it, but Arizona Opera gives fans the opportunity to do just that this weekend when they present the first reading of “Riders of the Purple Sage” — an original opera based on Zane Grey’s western novel, set on the Arizona-Utah border.
Valley musician and composer Craig Bohmler is writing the opera and will play the piano at this weekend’s workshops, where singers from the Marion Roose Pullin Resident Artist Program perform Acts 1 and 2 at Arizona Opera’s new facility in downtown Phoenix.
According to Bohmler, the goal of workshopping an opera is to hear everything in its purest form and to get audience feedback.
“(The singers) will be in front of music stands and I will be at the piano. There are no costumes, but the guys are wearing jeans and something kind of western. We have a stage manager who reads the stage directions. The reason to do this is so we can hear it in its rawest form. You’re not looking at production, you’re looking at content entirely,” Bohmler said.
After the performance, the audience will answer a short questionnaire about characters and dramatization. This response will give Bohmler and his librettist (who writes the opera’s text), Stephen Mark Kohn, the feedback they need to make edits before proceeding to the next phase of the writing process.
Bohmler said he has never been quite so excited about a project and feels that Zane Grey’s story provides meta-themes that are timely and relevant to Arizona and the culture at large.
“I won’t lie to you, (Riders of Purple Sage) is about Mormon fundamentalism ... about religious fundamentalism ... and finding your faith in the middle of that. It’s about guns, the use of guns and women’s rights in society. That’s what Zane Grey wrote. That’s why I wanted to retell the story,” he said.
Kohn, who teaches composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music, agreed that the book’s themes are well-suited for an opera. Using Grey’s text as a springboard, he soon found that the characters had personalities and passions of their own — emotions he tried to represent accurately.
“I used Zane Grey’s words initially, but after a little while the piece started to assume a face of its own and the characters started to come alive and tell me what they wanted to say. That made it much easier. The drama is great; it’s punchy. This is in your face stuff, which I love.”
“We made up our minds early not to take a poke at anyone. We’re really trying to tell a good, punchy story with characters who are strongly motivated. We’re really trying to not have an agenda of any kind,” he said.
Whether or not Kohn and Bohmler succeeded will be on display this weekend when the opera takes its first baby steps toward a finished product. If Arizona Opera likes the results of the reading, they have the option to produce it in full.
Although many factors play into the final decision, Bohmler is optimistic that Arizona Opera will take the leap. Nevertheless it could be another two years before “Riders of the Purple Sage” is ready for a premier, making this weekend an ideal time to peek behind the curtain to see the making of an Arizona opera.