Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya is spending the end of his summer vacation working. He is here, at the venerable Santa Fe Opera House, conducting the world premiere of a work written by his longtime friend and collaborator Jennifer Higdon.
And it’s kind of a big deal.
International press, distinguished musicians and opera bigwigs were among audience members for the sold-out debut of Cold Mountain on Aug. 1; a PBS camera crew filmed the event. The desert air was thick with anticipation in the days leading up to the performance.
A nervous Higdon sat in the audience, fully aware that the glare of the proverbial spotlight would be squarely on her when the house lights went down. But her friend Harth-Bedoya could be a reassuring presence in the pit. Years of collaboration, in Fort Worth and elsewhere, culminated with his confident downbeat.
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Although Harth-Bedoya was selected three years ago to conduct Higdon’s first opera — before a single note was written — the past couple of months have been grueling.
“I had to commit to eight solid weeks with no interruptions,” the conductor said. “So I canceled all of my usual summer appearances, at places like Tanglewood, before I could accept.
“For the past eight weeks, I was totally immersed in the opera, but we only had a week of rehearsals with the orchestra before it opened. The sound was quite different for the singers because they had been rehearsing with a piano reduction, which can hardly convey Jennifer’s complex orchestration.”
Genesis of an opera
Cold Mountain is based on Charles Frazier’s novel about wounded Confederate army deserter W.P. Inman’s gruesome walk back home to the woman he loves at the end of the Civil War. Although they had barely met before the war, she is waiting patiently for his return; their separate lives had been equally perilous.
Along his journey, he meets equally downtrodden people, including a bitter freed slave and a recently widowed young woman with a newborn baby. Adding to his woes, he is pursued by a Union bounty hunter chasing deserters for five bucks a head.
“It is all about relationships,” Higdon said.
The story was made into a 2003 Academy Award-winning film starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger.
Higdon took two years to compose the opera, which had been co-commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera, and in collaboration with North Carolina Opera. Renowned librettist Gene Scheer condensed the novel for the stage, and Higdon wrote the music.
Higdon, who is on the faculty at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, told a Santa Fe audience at a seminar that she brought little knowledge of opera composition to the project.
“I launched myself into research,” she said. “Usually, I produce at least a dozen new works a year. Fortunately, I was able to put off those commissions that would wait and hurry up with the few that couldn’t, but I was able to clear the time.”
Higdon is one of the most sought-after composers of contemporary classical music. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for her Violin Concerto and a 2009 Grammy Award for her Percussion Concerto. But the tab for “opera” on her website brings up a blank page with the words “coming soon.”
Composers of Higdon’s stature rarely turn to opera, perhaps the most difficult and risky of all compositional endeavors, in mid-career (she is 52). Beethoven faced this same conundrum when he grappled with his only opera, Fidelio, at the end of his so-called middle period. Like Beethoven, Higdon is best known as a composer of instrumental works and large-scale pieces for orchestra.
If her name sounds familiar to Fort Worth audiences, that’s because she is a recent Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra composer in residence, and the orchestra frequently has performed her works.
Her relationship to Harth-Bedoya goes back much further than their collaborations at Bass Hall, however.
“I first met Jennifer in 1988 in Philadelphia,” Harth-Bedoya said. “She had just graduated from the Curtis Institute with her doctorate and I was just beginning my bachelor degree.”
Through the years, he has performed her music in his many guest appearances around the world. Thus, he was a natural choice to conduct this highly anticipated premiere. In opera, it often is the relationship between composer and conductor that brings the music alive on stage or lets it fall flat.
Fortunately for the composer, student singers at Curtis — some of the best anywhere — jumped into the project by workshopping the opera as it was written
“I always learn more from my students than I teach them,” Higdon said. “Their input was critical to Cold Mountain.”
On stage in Santa Fe, some of the biggest names in the opera world — baritone Nathan Gunn and mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard — are singing the lead roles of Inman and Ada; it’s hard to imagine a better cast. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris is chilling as the slimy Union bounty hunter, and Emily Fons is wonderful as Ruby, the rough-as-a-cob woman who helps Ada keep the farm running.
All four seem to revel in singing Higdon’s vocally grateful music.
Although firmly rooted in neotonality, the opera lacks soaring melodies, which many might expect to hear. In fact, there isn’t an earworm to be heard, even in her Appalachian-influenced folk tunes.
Instead, the vocal writing, while often quite beautiful, appropriate and dramatic, is somewhere between purely melodic phrases and a modern take on recitativo accompagnato. In this way, Cold Mountain is reminiscent of some of the songs in Stephen Sondheim’s chatty Broadway/opera fusions.
Meanwhile, Higdon’s use of the orchestra is fascinating. She incorporates it as part of the stage: reflecting, predicating and even participating in the action. She uses it in every possible combination, alone and together: wind band, brass band, string section, percussion ensemble and solo instruments with minimal accompaniment. When she pulls out the full orchestra stop, which she does frequently, the results are thrilling.
The Santa Fe orchestra under Harth-Bedoya was in top form playing Higdon’s famously difficult music at the premiere.
One of the reasons for Higdon’s musical success here is the carefully constructed libretto by Scheer, whose list of successes is extensive, including the collaboration with Jake Heggie on another libretto derived from a novel, Moby-Dick (premiered in Dallas in 2010).
Cold Mountain could very well turn out to be his masterpiece. The Civil War may be the backdrop of the action, but Scheer painted the story of the ruined remains of a lost cause with a series of one-on-one confrontations.
In this critic’s mind, Cold Mountain is an astonishing triumph, destined to enter the operatic canon of frequently performed works and proving that the years of effort, rearranged schedules and sacrifice by all involved have paid off.
Harth-Bedoya said he felt elated to be on the podium.
“Opening night was a historic event,” he said. “We will read about it in future music history texts.”
▪ The Santa Fe Opera
▪ Through Aug. 24
▪ 800-280-4654; www.santafeopera.org