Phoenix Symphony Hall can be an intimidating place. Blonde wood walls curl out into a cavernous auditorium. They stretch around a small city of Sedona-red seats that preside in judgment over a dark, empty stage that defies you to fill it.
Then, Keitaro Harada does.
With a flash of his baton, the Arizona Opera conductor summons marvelous music from the orchestra pit: Grand, rollicking and indelibly Western, it rolls out across those seats and fills the hall with a sound that proclaims Riders of the Purple Sage – an Arizona-born opera of the American West, which will premiere this month in Arizona in front of dyed-in-the-wool opera fans and curious newcomers – has found its home.
Or as composer Craig Bohmler puts it: “Isn’t this fun?”
Scores to Settle
Riders of the Purple Sage, the opera based on Zane Grey’s classic Western novel about a patriarchy-smashing heroine rancher, has gone through many phases. It started as a whimsical “what if?” posed by Bohmler when a rainstorm trapped him in the Zane Grey Cabin & Museum (see From Sage to Stage, Part I, October 2015), then evolved into a passion project between Bohmler and his good friend, librettist Steven Mark Kohn. Along the way, it captured the imagination – and brush – of artist Ed Mell as he translated its Arizona-Utah setting into scenery and sky (see From Sage to Stage, Part II, May 2016). It found timely allies in Billie Jo and Judd Herberger, who put financial support and advocacy behind the project in 2015, and it prospered under conductors Harada and Joseph Mechavich, who made Bohmler’s music come to life. Finally, Riders hit its stride in workshops at Arizona Opera’s Downtown Phoenix rehearsal hall as the light rail trains rolled by.
But AZO’s first world premiere and original production – a $1 million investment – didn’t start to come together until this September afternoon at Symphony Hall.
“We got us a piece!” stage director Fenlon Lamb grins. We’re watching the Sitzprobe – opera-speak for the singers’ and orchestra’s first work-through together. As she paces Symphony Hall, Lamb holds her excitement like a gambler who has drawn a high straight. “We’ve got incredible music, and marvelous voices to sing it. And have you seen Ed’s designs?”
Since July of 2015, Lamb has been guiding these separate creative elements toward a single, unified story. A director of both new and established works – including Arizona Opera’s 2014 production of Rigoletto – she doesn’t surrender her enthusiasm easily. “[Riders] was always a great idea. But now all these talented people are together and collaborating and we got us a piece!”
Almost. Yes, the orchestra and singers sound wonderful together. But this is Labor Day weekend. The auditorium is empty. The performers are still in street clothes. Meanwhile, Mell’s 28-foot canyons lay flat, paint drying, in a scene shop in Tempe. The marvelous piece still lacks a few pieces. And in opera, the bar for success is set high.
“There are numerous risks to producing an original opera,” says author-composer Kenneth LaFave, whose own opera, American Gothic, was staged by ASU Lyric Opera in 1995. “Opera audiences are oriented toward a traditional repertoire. Operas cost a load of money, and the form is much less open to new work.”
Only a few modern operas – like Nixon in China (1987) or André Previn’s 1998 adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire – run with the Wagners, Mozarts and Puccinis.
But Riders isn’t concerning itself with history yet. Arizona Opera has already cleared remarkable hurdles to get this far. And before its Tucson premiere and its three Phoenix performances, Riders of the Purple Sage still has a few notes yet to hit, and – literally – a score to settle.
The September Sitzprobe rehearsals look black-box bleak: Riders’ heroine, Jane Withersteen, sings from a music stand. Cowboys sit on metal chairs. The stage looks more like a PowerPoint presentation than a windswept frontier.
Even so, the music packs a punch.
When Jane realizes the Good Samaritan she has sheltered is the notorious “gun man” Lassiter, her aria “Who Is This Man?” ends the first scene on a powerful, haunting note.
Soprano Karin Wolverton, who sings Jane, says creating a brand new opera character is actually a blessing. “If you do La Bohème, everyone says, ‘Oh! You must listen to this recording!’ Here, you’re like a kid at play.”
Blonde, blue-eyed and determined in her bearing, Wolverton looks every inch the spirited Mormon ranch owner Zane Grey envisioned. When Bohmler and then-AZO General Director Ryan Taylor auditioned five possible Janes in New York in 2014, Wolverton stood out. “She has glorious high notes, and a [vocal] range that can sound strong without pushing,” Bohmler says. “She’s beautiful – that’s the first thing you notice about her – but she also looks like she could run a ranch.”
And she knows how to pioneer a role. Wolverton sang the lead in Kevin Puts’ award-winning new opera Silent Night at Minnesota Opera, and has performed in the world premieres of operatic adaptations of The Grapes of Wrath and Doubt. Her portrayal of Jane had its roots in Arizona Opera’s production of Carmen last season. “I was playing Micaela, and had an hour between entrances,” she says. “I would use that time to study the score.”
Her portrayal of Jane evolved through a surprisingly solitary process. “First, you read the novel. You go through Jane’s music. You find the librettist’s storyline. Then you do the grunt work: highlighting words, writing in rhythms. That’s the unglamorous part – alone in a studio with the score and a piano. Once you feel you know it, you take it to a coach to help you find more. Then, as you rehearse together, you figure out the flow.”
Confidence and chemistry improve the more the artists can work together. Arizona Opera has staged multiple workshops, and the September Sitzprobe, to bring Riders along. “They’re doing everything right,” Wolverton says. “They’re giving it time, support and help.”
Riders’ score and story have both flourished in the process. Bohmler and Kohn used audience feedback from the workshops to personalize the music, sharpen plot lines and give Jane Withersteen a depth beyond the original story. “My favorite scene is where Jane battles with her bishop,” Wolverton says. “He is throwing some low emotional blows, and she is not having any of it. She has her convictions of what she knows is right. I love that Craig has made her so strong.”
Chasing Down “Amazing”
“September was mind-blowing!” Bohmler recalls with a laugh. “It’s always great when you first put the singers with an orchestra.” Two months later, Riders has changes: a new conductor, a homestretch mentality and a lot of lessons learned from the Sitzprobe. That first sing-through showed no fundamental mistakes in the score; and no hideous, squawking pileup of Stetsons, sopranos and horns. Head of music Allen Perriello was encouraged.
“That said, we came back with thousands of edits,” Bohmler says.
Bohmler spent autumn and early winter chasing down every loose thread on the purple sage. He has been taking singer notes from Perriello – “he’s amazing,” Bohmler says – and instrumental notes from the 54-member orchestra: “Which are great, because the viola players know the viola better than I do and they want to get it right.”
Conductor Joseph Mechavich says that’s a perk of new operas: “You don’t have to study and guess about what the composer meant. You just call him on the phone.” The newest member of the Riders posse, Mechavich happily signed on in November, when Harada was invited to a conductor’s competition in Germany – a hiccup in the production, but not a ruinous one. Mechavich has extensive experience in new works, and a fresh perspective on this one.
Riders, he says, has dramatic elements reminiscent of Benjamin Britten and Puccini. “Craig knows about telling a story, and moving the people in the seats. My job, as conductor, will be knowing when to accompany and when to lead. There are moments when I’ll have to assist my friends onstage or in the pit, and moments when I’ll have to get out of the way and let the bassoon or the singer shape a phrase.”
Bohmler says that kind of collaborative spirit is critical for success: “Opera used to be ‘composer: first-last-always.’” But he’d be foolish, he says, not to tap the talent on hand. He points to a moment from the Sitzprobe, when Wolverton sang one phrase an octave high. “That wasn’t how it was written, but it sounded exactly right. So you respond to the performer. It’s not about whose idea it was, but what makes the piece more amazing.”
Painting the Sky
“Amazing” frequently describes the work of artist Ed Mell, whose vast Western landscapes capture the emotion of seeing the terrain firsthand. As Arizona’s most iconic modern painter – whose works have graced gallery walls, magazine covers and the Arizona state stamp – Mell, 74, probably never expected to be making fake trees as backdrops for opera singers. But it’s December, and that’s next on his list.
“We’ve got the cliffs and the canyons all done,” he says. Seventeen months after design conferences began, Mell has done the broad strokes. Now he – like Bohmler – is chasing down little details. “I’ll be doing the cottonwoods next.”
Approached in 2013 by a Riders team hoping to use a few images, Mell called and raised their offer: He would render Zane Grey’s West into an artwork large enough for people to sing inside. His images are critical to a story where the land itself plays a role. “Ed’s work gives the story the scale it needs,” Lamb explains. “Because Riders is a story about a huge landscape and these little humans fighting to get through it.”
“I’m focusing more on the natural elements now: mountains, trees and sky,” the artist explains. “I’ll be doing a few paintings that will be projected across the stage.” Symphony Hall will be Mell’s largest canvas. Jane’s battle with the Mormon elders, Lassiter’s vengeful gunplay, and the discovery of Surprise Canyon will happen beneath a 1,800-square-foot Ed Mell sky, projected through a newly purchased state-of-the-art projection system.
“We’re still working on how the sky will look when the lighting is on it, and how it will accentuate the mood,” Mell says. He adds that Lamb wants to modulate the cloud banks and open sky to mirror the story’s tone. “That’ll be great fun to play with.”
But his to-do list is growing short. Mell began turning designs over to the painters last August. Soon, all his creations will be the singers’ to play with. “It has definitely been a challenge, and I’ve enjoyed it,” the artist says. “When we started this project, we went down some roads we ended up not pursuing. But that’s what you do. It’s like painting a study before doing the actual painting. You try different things. That’s how I work.”
But like the rest of the creative team, Mell wants to see Riders with all its guns blazin’. “September was pretty dynamic, I thought. It’s a lot more polished than hearing it on a piano. I see all these components coming together, and I think it’s going to be cool.”
Ready to Ride
On Friday night, March 3, Symphony Hall will go dark. Horns will sound, Bohmler’s music will leap from the pit, and the curtain will rise on an Ed Mell canyon shaped from Zane Grey’s dreams.
Will the audience go along for the ride?
“It will be hard to tell [from the stage],” Wolverton says. “It’s easier to tell when they’re not with you. Moved people don’t move,” she laughs. Either way, she’ll be too caught up in Jane to read the crowd. “At that point, you trust the rehearsal process.”
“Opera audiences have changed so much over the decades,” LaFave says. Riders’ reception “depends on how open they are.” But to him, what’s more important is what happens after the curtain comes down. “A second production, with a bigger company, would be a good sign,” LaFave says. “If a company in Chicago or Houston picked it up, that would ensure long-term success.”
Fenlon Lamb believes that can happen: “I really think this piece has legs. I’d love to see multiple productions in opera houses here in the U.S. and maybe more over in Europe. For me, success is seeing a finished project that shows off every element to its best advantage and supports the telling of the story in the best way possible.”
Bohmler is Zen about it all: “It’s already successful,” he says. “It brought an extraordinary group of people together. It helped an opera company re-invent itself, and it changed my creative life. I’ll never be able to walk back from that.”
Mechavich isn’t dwelling on the future or the past. He’s all about opening night: “My job is to create and produce – not to analyze,” he says. “But in those moments of silence, I can feel the audience. I can feel their energy on the back of my neck. That, to me, is the drug.”
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