Guest Blogger

An Unsatisfactory Situation: The Brokeback Mountain Opera

Filed By Guest Blogger | March 09, 2014 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain, Charles Wuorinen, cowboys, forbidden love, Madrid, opera, review, Spain, Teatro Real

Editor's Note: Guest blogger John Trudell is a member of The Ultimate Brokeback Forum and has done tech support for the forum since 2006. He lives alone in Santa Rosa, CA and works as a hotel accountant.

brokeback_mountain_xlg.jpgIn March 2006 I became a member of The Ultimate Brokeback Forum, a fan site dedicated to serious discussion of the film and short story Brokeback Mountain. Over the years I've made many new friends there, and not just online. We've had many events and gatherings where members would travel from all over the world to meet in person.

We had so many eloquent and moving personal stories told on the forum that we decided to turn them into a book, "Beyond Brokeback: The Impact of a Film," which has also been turned into a staged reading by Gregory Hinton and performed all over the country in the past few years as part of his "Out West" series. We are not obsessed, we are passionate.

When it was announced in September 2007 that Brokeback Mountain was to be turned into an opera I was very excited. Four years later I heard that a date and location had finally been set -- January, 2014 in Madrid -- so I made my travel plans and eagerly attended the performance.

But at the end of the big day, the big show left me with mixed feelings.

My mother taught me not to speak ill of the dead, so I have very little to say about the opera's lifeless score.

In the weeks leading up to the opera the composer, Charles Wuorinen and librettist Annie Proulx tried very hard to make it clear that this was not a musical recreation of the film. That was to be expected and something I think most of us looked forward to. We wanted to see something new and different.

What I didn't expect was that they would disparage the film in an attempt to make the opera seem better than the film. Annie Proulx said the film "was what it was," a far cry from her earlier praise of the Oscar-winning screenplay by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry.

brokeback-mountain-opera.jpgThe creators of the film, especially Diana Ossana, poured a lot of energy and passion into getting the film made. Their efforts paid off in the cultural phenomenon that made the opera possible. So it was upsetting to hear the creators of the opera dismiss the film as lacking. At least the performers in the opera showed that they were passionate about telling the story.

The opera was also marketed as being less sentimental than the film. I didn't see that in Madrid. Daniel Okulitch did a superb job portraying Ennis Del Mar, and Tom Randle was equally as impressive as Jack Twist. The Ennis and Jack characters in the opera are certainly not any less sentimental. Their relationship comes across as more romantic than what was shown in either the film or short story.

When the film was in release I remember a lot of people, especially gay men, bemoaning the fact that Jack and Ennis seemed unaware of the advances in gay rights and the newfound public acceptance that some people found in the 70s and 80s. But that was remedied in the opera during the scene where Ennis talks about being killed if they're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Jack tells Ennis that it's different now and that things have changed, even though they hadn't really changed much in Wyoming or most of America outside of the big cities back then. I lost a few friends to gay bashings in the '70s and '80s in central Michigan and even in the big cities of New York and Los Angeles. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Wuorinen's score supposedly has more depth than what is apparent when listening. One motif represents Jack, another Ennis, and yet another for the mountain. These notes aren't apparent unless you read the composer's notes. That shouldn't be necessary in any live performance. Opera is still a show, so show me, don't tell me.

I liked the Edward Hopper-inspired sets, but they seemed out of place and time for Wyoming in the '60s.

brokeback-mountain-opera5.jpgThe costumes were very good, especially in the beginning when Jack and Ennis go up to Brokeback for the first time. These were clearly inspired by the work of the late Marit Allen who designed the wardrobe for the film.

The performers all did a great job. What was lacking in the score was made up by the emotions of the singers. Daniel Okulitch and Tom Randle were perfect choices. They can both act as well as sing, and they received a few well-deserved "bravos" at the curtain call.

We met Daniel after the performance, and he was very gracious. He also came over to our group at a restaurant afterwards to thank us and to let us know that he was relieved to have passed the test of the true Brokeback fans. He passed with flying colors.

Annie Proulx did a good job with the libretto, but it would really work better as a non-musical stage play after a little reworking by someone with more experience writing a script.

I am not sorry I went to Madrid at all. It was an impressive show, but less than what I was hoping for.

The saddest part of the opera came at the end. Not the scene where Ennis is holding the shirts, but after the last note when the audience broke into painfully polite applause.

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