"Brokeback Mountain" becomes an opera

The premiere is scheduled for June 2013 in Madrid's Teatro Real.

21 de Abril de 2009 | 15:19 | Juan Antonio Muñoz H., El Mercurio

SANTIAGO.- When the film "Brokeback mountain" (Ang Lee, 2005) premiered, it led to a heated debate about the subjects being tackled by mass film industry. The winning of more than 45 awards -including three Oscars (Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score) and the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival (Best Film)- was supported by an indisputable success in movie theaters. Its main characters, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, were considered as tragic heroes immersed in a hostile world and the actors, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, became sex symbols without frontiers.

Now a new step is being given in dealing with love between men due to the fact that Gérard Mortier, artistic director of the New York City Opera, commissioned an opera about this subject to composer Charles Wuorinen. It should have premiered on that theater's stage, but the composer himself explains: "Mortier had a rift with the theater and left. He is now working at the Teatro Real in Madrid. And 'Brokeback mountain' will make its debut there in June 2013".

Based on a novella by Annie Proulx (1935), the opera is about the love story of Ennis and Jack, two cowboys who fall in love with each other during the summer of 1963, and it will also deal with homosexuality as a taboo subject in the heartland of America during the '60's. A complex and intense relationship intermittently maintained for over two decades. As Ennis is incapable of accepting the situation, his stance leads to unsatisfied lives and unchains the tragedy.

Charles Wuorinen (1938) became in 1970 the youngest composer to receive the Pulitzer Prize for his electronic work, "Time's Encomium". Since then, he has composed over 250 works, including his acclaimed opera, "Haroun and the Sea of Stories", based on Salman Rushdie's novel (New York, 2004). From the United States, the inflections of his voice reveal how much he has thought about his new effort and the decisions he has had to take in order to treat such a delicate matter in a clear and coherent way.

—How have you dealt with the story of "Brokeback mountain"? Is your opera based on Annie Proulx's story or on Ang Lee's film? Will people see the characters of the film on this occasion on an opera stage?

—Annie Proulx herself wrote the libretto which is already finished. I feel it does not bear much relation to the film. It has the same characters, but unlike the story, however, women play a slightly bigger part in it, as in the film. But I have not contacted Ang Lee and I have contacted Annie Proulx. I just finished working with her when she came recently to Nueva York to add the last touches.

—In what way will you deal, from a musical and theatrical point of view, with the love scenes between Jack and Ennis? One thing is to talk about the love of a man for another man and something quite different is a man having sex with another man.

—There will be no sex scenes on the stage in my opera. The love scenes have a dialogue and they are going to be sung. And the musical staging will reflect what they are saying and the emotions that may be read between the lines. There is a moment where there is a musical interlude; they will not be visible then, but they are making love.

—Have you thought about what this kind of experience will be for the public? People who go to the opera are not used to seeing love scenes between men …

—Well, they will have to get used to it.

Interior monologues

—Another important issue in "Brokeback Mountain" is loneliness. How can that loneliness be described through music?

—Music is not description, it is gestures. When there are words, suggestion becomes reality, description.

—In the story and in the film there are many unspoken situations. Silence is therefore very important …

—There are some silences scheduled in the libretto, but one has to take into account that there are no close-ups in an opera stage and that everything is at a distance from the public; therefore, there must exist interior monologues of the characters and we do have them. The score includes fragments where the main characters and also some secondary characters tell us what they are thinking, what they are feeling. That will never exist in movies because there’s no need for it; movies have other ways of showing what goes on inside someone’s mind. What we have done in the opera is to transfer those feelings to their mouths, thus making it more direct.

—The love between Jack and Ennis is a special love because one of them is always disappearing. It is a love that is maintained without the other partner…

—Well, it disappears because Ennis is not willing to fully commit himself in the relationship. It is Ennis who finally takes the fatal choice of not leaving his farm, of not going with Jack and starting a new life with him. That is the basis of the tragedy. There is loneliness, as you said, but the most important thing there is love. We have a very touching scene at the end when Ennis finds out that Jack is dead. He holds Jack's bloodied shirt in his hands and talks to it on his way home. But it is already too late. It is only then that he realizes that he can no longer do anything and that he never told him what he always wanted to.

Young singers and good actors
—Have you got a clear picture about the voices the main characters will have?

—I have a pretty clear picture about it. Jack will be a lyric tenor. Ennis is a bass-baritone with several spoken parts. He only sings in some passages. There is a quite marked difference between the two personalities.

—Have you thought about any singers for these roles?

—I have some in mind, but it is too soon to give out their names. To tell you the truth, I have definitely specific people in mind for the two main characters and also for one or two of the secondary roles. But I would not like to give out their names because I have only thought about them and we haven’t yet contacted them.

—But would they be well-known singers or young singers?

—I generally prefer young singers, especially for this opera. We need artists who bear some resemblance to the role and who are capable of acting. We cannot have some 70-year old singer.

—And what about the female characters? The wives…

—Their role in the opera will naturally be less important than that of the main characters. I know their vocal types, it’s something I’ve already decided on, but I have not decided on any particular singer.

—What kind of orchestra have you considered for your work?

—I think it will be a standard-size orchestra, which is slightly smaller than an orchestra for a large symphony. It will probably consist of 80 musicians instead of a 100.

"Mass audiences are not interested in serious things"

—One tends to think nowadays that the creation of contemporary music distances itself from mass audiences. Do you agree with this opinion?

—Yes, it is true. But all serious art is distanced from mass audiences.


—Because mass audiences are not interested in serious things. Serious art, of any kind, but specially music, requires an effort from its audience. You have to pay attention, have a certain education, know something, develop a taste for it … And most people don’t do that, they’re not interested. What you compromise in order to obtain mass audiences immediately becomes very superficial entertainment.

—When people talk about opera, they think about a melody. Can there be opera without melody?

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