“Riders of the Purple Sage” is composer Craig Bohmler’s bid to create the first great American Western opera.
If it is remains to be seen. But no matter what, “Riders” — based on the classic novel by Zane Grey — is a giant leap forward for Arizona Opera: the first-ever world premiere in the company’s 45-year history.
Opening night is Saturday, Feb. 25, at the Tucson Music Hall, and again on Friday, March 3, at Symphony Hall in Phoenix. Opera executives will be traveling from around the country to see the premiere production — perhaps with an eye to bringing it to their own audiences.
It’s kind of a big deal.
“This is the first time it’s ever been done, so you have this feeling of ‘I just want to get this right,’” says stage director Fenlon Lamb, returning to Arizona Opera after mounting “Rigoletto” in 2014. This is her first world premiere, too.
“I want it to be enduring,” she says. “In the end, that’s what you want. You want it to be a story that lasts, and you want it to come off very well for audiences and feel like an enduring classic right off the bat. That’s the hope.
“Not too much pressure, right?”
The accidental opera
The stakes are high. Yet “Riders of the Purple Sage” is a bit of an accidental opera, both for the composer who conceived it and for the company that has invested $1.1 million to put it onstage.
Bohmler was born and raised in Texas, where he studied with Carlisle Floyd, the dean of American opera composers, best known for “Susannah” (1955) and “Of Mice and Men” (1970). Bohmler has written three previous operas, but his claim to fame is musical theater, with shows such as “Gunmetal Blues” and “Enter the Guardsman” that have been produced in New York and London.
He first came to Arizona in 1987 and immediately fell in love with the austere beauty of the Sonoran Desert. In 2010, he was driving in Payson with plans for a hike, but a rainstorm led to a detour to the Rim Country Museum and Zane Grey Cabin. (The latter is actually a replica; the cabin where Grey did much of his writing was destroyed by fire.)
"I passed that sign I don’t know how many times, and I’ve lived here 20 years,” Bohmler says. “I thought he was a visual artist. So if it hadn’t rained, I wouldn’t have gone there. If I’d stopped at the previous light, there would not have been a sign that said Zane Grey museum.”
But he did stop, and, intrigued by what he learned about the writer who defined the Western genre, he went home and fired up his Kindle to read Grey’s most famous novel.
“It spoke so strongly to me,” Bohmler told The Republic in 2013. “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.”
It takes a village
Most new operas get under way with a commission from a company committed to shepherding them to the stage, but Bohmler started writing “Riders” “for nothing but fun,” drafting Steven Mark Kohn, who had written the book to Bohmler’s musicals “Unstoppable Me!” and “The Quiltmaker’s Gift,” to essay his first opera libretto.
Bohmler was serving as vocal coach for some of the young singers in Arizona Opera’s resident-artist program, and Scott Altman, the company’s director at the time, saw an opportunity to formalize the relationship, appointing him composer-in-residence for a workshop performance by the apprentices.
Meanwhile, Bohmler’s friend Kristin Atwell Ford, a documentary filmmaker, got interested. She not only started shooting footage to trace the progress of the opera, she enlisted Arizona painter Ed Mell, famed for his stylized, Modernist landscapes, to sign on as scenic designer. (She gets co-producer credit for the world premiere.)
A pair of workshops captured the imagination of opera patrons, including philanthropists such as Billie Jo and Judd Herberger, who were willing to pony up to support the piece. So Altman’s successor, Ryan Taylor, made a formal commission offer and scheduled the world premiere as the capstone of his four-year “Arizona Bold” initiative to produce newer works with relevance to a local audience.
It takes a village, as they say. And after Taylor moved on to Minnesota Opera last year, it fell to new general director Joseph Specter to see “Riders” through the last leg of its journey to the stage.
Putting Arizona on the map
“A world premiere is an incredibly special thing,” Specter says. “It’s like the birth of a child. To see the electricity that’s been generated, to see the way it excites people about opera, about this country, about a story that’s more resonant than I ever would have imagined, it’s just powerful stuff. And it’s humbling.
“What we know from the interest and the electricity around ‘Riders’ is that there is a real appetite for an opera company that serves this community by doing work that will step outside the traditional boundaries and get people fired up.”
If “Riders” is a success, it will be a put-it-on-the-map moment, both for Arizona Opera and, in a way, for Arizona itself.
“These shows get remounted for years and years and years, and you have things that came out of Paris or Vienna or Rome. Now here’s our big piece out of Phoenix,” says Atwell Ford, who has shot more than 80 hours of material (and counting) for her making-of documentary.
“I really think this is a high-water mark for the arts in Arizona. There are so many ways to connect to this piece, whether you’re a Zane Grey fan or an Arizona history buff or you love the artwork of Ed Mell or you love Westerns and cinematic music. There are a lot of threads of passion that are woven into this piece. I like to think of this as a piece of art that is over a century in the making, because Zane Grey first came to Arizona in 1907.”
The quintessential Western
Technically speaking, the action of Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage,” published in 1912, takes place in southern Utah. Our heroine is Jane Withersteen, a 28-year-old spinster who finds herself in conflict with the polygamist town elders, both for her friendships with non-Mormon newcomers and because she refuses to marry and give up ownership of her ranch. Things get ugly.
Enter Lassiter, the archetype of the outlaw stranger who rides into town to right wrongs. In Bohmler and Kohn’s version, he sings an aria that goes, “A man without a gun is only half a man.”
“I wouldn’t have adapted ‘Riders’ if I didn’t think that it spoke directly to what is going on today — which is religious fundamentalism, women’s rights, guns and society,” Bohmler says. “And he wrote this 100 years ago.”
Musically, the opera draws on influences ranging from Bohmler’s mentor, Carlisle Floyd, to musical theater and the rich tradition of Hollywood’s Western soundtracks. Sweeping lyrical passages evoke the rugged landscape, while scenes of violence are underscored with more angular, Modernist melodies, a mix of styles that dovetails with Mell’s scenic design.
It also reflects a memorable piece of advice that Floyd — who will attend the opera in Phoenix — gave his protégé.
“He said, ‘If an audience has a vocabulary of 200 words, give them those 200 words plus 200 they don’t know,’” Bohmler recalls. “That was something he said to me in my 20s. That has always informed me.”
Despite the global popularity of Western movies, the opera world has never really explored the genre. Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West,” from 1910, touches on some of the familiar tropes, but it doesn’t quite have the mythic scope that we think of as quintessential.
Also, it’s sung in Italian. Hence Bohmler’s ambition to write the great American Western opera.
An American renaissance
Arizona’s first home-grown opera comes at a time when American composers are finally coming into their own within an art form that was invented during the Italian Renaissance as an imagined revival of classical Greek theater.
“When opera came to America, Americans had such an inferiority complex that even when Americans started to write opera, they were trying to write atonal German music, or they were trying to imitate European sounds,” says Darren K. Woods, former general director of Fort Worth Opera in Texas.
“So even though we’ve had Carlisle Floyd and Robert Ward and some American stalwarts and heroes, it’s really only been since the early ’90s that the American voice, with Jake Heggie and Mark Adamo and Ricky Ian Gordon, has begun to emerge. And when those proved to be successful, we’ve seen this huge churn of young American composers just stepping up and being amazing.”
Woods also championed new work in Fort Worth, from the company’s first world premiere in 2007 to last year’s acclaimed “JFK.”
“The Met didn’t start this,” Woods says. “It sort of started in the heartland. It’s arguable that Houston Grand Opera with David Gockley (general director from 1972 to 2005) really did start the push toward new works with operas by Carlisle Floyd and John Adams and Philip Glass.”
Similarly, Bohmler sees “Riders” as an artistic coming-out party for another state that’s often dismissed as part of America’s “flyover country.”
“The world is not New York-centric,” he says. “But we have to define ourselves, and we have to say what we are. And I think that’s what artists do. They say what they personally are in where they are. And that’s what I’m trying to do. And I know this. This is stuff I know. I go out hiking regularly, and I am continually awed, blown away, transfixed, rendered speechless by experiences that Arizona offers to me.”
The test of success
Despite all the excitement surrounding the premiere of “Riders,” its success ultimately will not be judged by how many tickets are sold or how well critics like it. The real test is whether it enters the canon of contemporary works.
The most important production for a new work isn’t the first but the second — or rather, whether it gets a second. And most don’t.
Of 589 new operatic works by North American composers premiered between 1995 and 2015, only 11 percent were later revived, according to surveys conducted by Opera America. And of that 11 percent, less than half have made it to a fourth production.
Part of the problem with new works, says Fort Worth’s Woods, “was if you didn’t have the world premiere, then you didn’t get all the publicity. And then what good was it? You’re just doing another opera. So what’s more important now is trying to cobble together co-commissioners where you know it’s going to have two or three places to perform before it’s sent out into the cold, cruel world.”
But with “Riders,” Arizona Opera is flying solo.
“I’m not nervous for me,” Bohmler says. “I think the piece is a good piece. I wouldn’t put it out there if I didn’t think it was. I want it to be wildly successful for them, so that they commission another work from another composer one day, and so that the audience learns to trust their decision in doing that and it helps keep them current. That’s what I really hope, and for that I am nervous.”