The story of Riders of the Purple Sage is remarkably relevant today – tackling issues of women's independence, faith vs. fundamentalism, abuse of power, and guns in society. Complex issues are given human faces, with sharply drawn characters like Jane Withersteen, our morally incorruptible heroine, and Lassiter, the "John Wayne of Opera.” Riders is a visceral experience that raises Big Questions and allows audiences to seek their own answers through the pure emotional experience of opera.
ACT I (40 min)
Utah territory, circa 1870.
Jane Withersteen, a devout Mormon woman, has inherited a sprawling ranch from her father. With all the wealth and power her ranch represents, Jane is under pressure from the church to marry Elder Tull and add her land, herd, and spring to the growing Mormon settlement of Short Creek. When Jane resists Tull's advances, he resorts to threatening to whip her head rider, Venters, on a trumped-up charge. Lassiter, a mysterious gunman, arrives in time to save Venters and drive off the Mormons. Lassiter has come to see the grave of Milly Erne, who was a dear friend to Jane. He asks about Milly's daughter, who was taken by the church when she was a baby. When rustlers steal one of Jane's herds, Venters rides off to confront them, knowing the feared Masked Rider is among them. He wounds the Masked Rider, and is astonished to discover a girl named Bess beneath the rider's mask.
ACT II (60 min)
Jane speaks to her departed father, questioning the behavior of her churchmen and considering the challenges of her situation, before Lassiter arrives in time to avert a stampede bearing down on Jane's ranch. Venters and Bess hide out in Surprise Valley as Bess recuperates and the two fall in love. Venters notices a large balancing rock, which could be pushed over to bury any pursuers and seal up the canyon. Though Bess would be content to stay in Surprise Valley, Venters convinces her to come to Illinois with him. Bishop Dyer, head of the local Mormon Church, confronts Jane about her friendship with Lassiter, a Mormon-hating gunman, as well as her refusal to marry Tull. Lassiter arrives and drives off the Bishop, who damns them both. Venters arrives and tells Jane and Lassiter about Bess, Surprise Valley, and their plans to leave for Illinois. Jane and Lassiter visit the grave of Milly Erne, who is revealed to be Lassiter's sister. There, he discovers that Bishop Dyer had taken Milly from her home, and abducted her child after she left the church. Lassiter swears revenge on the Bishop.
ACT III (30 min)
Bishop Dyer and Elder Tull reaffirm their commitment to the growing Mormon Church, and Dyer conducts a sermon as Lassiter waits outside the church, hell-bent on revenge. Lassiter confronts and kills the Bishop, but not before discovering that Bess is Milly’s daughter. Back at Jane’s house, Lassiter confesses to the killing and surrenders his guns to Jane, prepared to give up his life as a gunman. Tull and his men prepare to attack Jane’s ranch and kill Lassiter as Bess and Venters prepare to leave Surprise Valley for Illinois. Jane and Lassiter decide to join Bess and Venters on their journey to a new life in Illinois. Jane torches her ranch as they ride out, determined that the Church will not take the house her father built with his own hands. The four meet up out on the sage, where Lassiter and his niece Bess are reunited. With Tull and his men in hot pursuit, Jane and Lassiter surrender their horses to the young lovers, so that they may escape, while Jane and Lassiter make their way to Surprise Valley. With no way out, Jane and Lassiter push the balancing rock down on Tull’s men, burying them and sealing themselves in the canyon.
Header image by Robert Pflumm