It's a story that could have been taken from a breaking news report: A soldier, gravely wounded in a brutal battle, flees the fighting to try and make his way home. Only this story is set during the Civil War.
If that's starting to sound a little familiar, it probably should — it's the story of Cold Mountain, a best-selling novel and a star-studded 2003 movie. Now it's an opera, composed by Jennifer Higdon with a libretto by Gene Scheer. It premiered this past weekend, but its road to the stage was almost as difficult as the journey home of the main character.
Higdon was having a good year in 2010. A recording of her Percussion Concerto won a Grammy, while her Violin Concerto landed her a Pulitzer Prize. But she was also struggling with how to write her first opera.
"I attended tons of opera," Higdon says. "I remember going to Vienna to see John Adams' A Flowering Tree, and I saw his Doctor Atomic. So I went to see a lot of new opera, and then I just started getting tons of scores and recordings, everything from standard repertoire to Puccini, Mozart, to even anything that had been written yesterday."
Higdon was collaborating with Scheer, who was wrapping up an adaptation of Moby-Dick for the Dallas Opera. They were stuck on a subject for their project.
"First, we went through tons of books, just looking for something that would resonate," Higdon says. "And I wasn't sure if it would be a love story, a horror story or science fiction."
One day, on the phone, Scheer suggested Cold Mountain.
"We both reread the book," Scheer says, "and after doing so we were convinced that this was really a great idea for an opera. That there was a way of inviting music in to really illuminate the story."
The story is based on Charles Frazier's debut novel, published in 1997, about the soldier W.P. Inman and his struggle to make it home. It became a movie six years later. But Higdon says securing the rights was a challenge, because the company that held them was in the process of being sold.
"We had a hard time, even at first, getting a response to get rights to the story," she says. Miramax owned the stage rights. Eventually, though, Higdon found her way to the author, who initially couldn't see the story working on stage.
"My first reaction was that Inman is such an internal character — that he hardly speaks," Frazier says. "To see him on stage singing took a little bit of adjustment."
Frazier agreed to the opera adaptation, even though he says you're more likely to hear Scandinavian jazz or the new Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell album playing in his Asheville, N.C., home.
"I mean, one of the things I've done with adaptation is just recognize early on that my expression of the material and the characters is the book and the expression in the movie or the opera is not mine," he says. "But, saying that, I've been enormously lucky with the people who've chosen to adapt my work."
In the case of the opera, there turned out to be a connection between writer, composer and story. Higdon grew up in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee — not far from the setting of Cold Mountain.
"I didn't realize it at the time why, but the speech patterns of the lines that Charles Frazier wrote were so familiar," she says.
But while the text resonated with Higdon, it didn't so much for her librettist, a native New Yorker.
"He wasn't sure he could figure out 'Southern speak,' so he wrote the libretto, and I went through and southernized it," she says.
Higdon still had to figure out how to write for opera singers, which she'd never done before. So she talked to a lot of them — including baritone Nathan Gunn, who signed on early to play the main character for the Santa Fe Opera premiere. He says they worked together, tweaking the music for the logistics of the stage.
"There have been a number of times when we've gotten together and said, 'This would really help here if we, for dramatic purposes, put a fermata over this note, because I don't know if I'm going to be able to go up around the stage after having a big fight, panting like crazy, and sing these next lines,'" Gunn says.
Higdon and Scheer had to carefully select scenes to bring a 449-page novel down to less than three hours. They also added scenes, and Frazier says the new ones are among his favorites.
Scheer says he hopes the opera rings true for today's audiences, especially in its parallels to the experiences of modern soldiers reintegrating into society.
"Many of them had had these horrific experiences," he says. "That is the experience that Inman finds himself in. You know he's gutted. I think it's very hard to go through the kind of violence that people go through in war and not be changed."
For her part, Higdon hopes she's delivered on her main goal.
"For me, music is about emotion. That's the first thing I think about when I'm writing. So I'm hoping that people who come to the opera, who know the novel, will identify with the characters and understand," she says. "I mean, it's a slice of time, it's a slice of life. It's a regional slice, and it's characters who could very well be living now — so it's an audio portrait."
Cold Mountain will continue at Santa Fe Opera through August. Most performances are sold out, but its journey will continue. It will be produced by Opera Philadelphia early next year, and again in 2018 by Minnesota Opera.
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.