Back to ‘Cold Mountain’ – but this time the doomed lovers will sing

 Opera Philadelphia General Director David Devan and Pulitzer Prize- winning composer Jennifer Higdon.  Devan's company commissioned Higdon's opera based on Charles Frazier's bestselling novel, Cold Mountain. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Opera Philadelphia General Director David Devan and Pulitzer Prize- winning composer Jennifer Higdon. Devan's company commissioned Higdon's opera based on Charles Frazier's bestselling novel, Cold Mountain. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Civil War novel Cold Mountain won the National Book Award in 1997, and spawned an Oscar-winning film in 2003.  Next year, it will premiere in Philadelphia as an opera.

The opera was written by Jennifer Higdon, the Pulitzer-winning composer who teaches at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

She had never written an opera before, but she felt a deep kinship with the characters of Charles Frazier’s novel. Higdon used to live in East Tennessee, about an hour from the real Cold Mountain in North Carolina, on the other side of the Smoky Mountains.

“I knew that sound world.  I had written a bluegrass concerto,” said Higdon. “It’s nice to go back and visit that part of my past – what we call mountain music in the Smokys. There’s something wonderful about revisiting that, but doing it in the setting of an opera.”

Higdon had been thinking about writing an opera for almost 10 years, since her mentor, conductor Robert Spano, suggested it was time. Known for concertos, Higdon had been steeped in instrumental music. She says about halfway through writing the score, the characters were telling her what to write.

“I recognize these characters,” said Higdon. “Even though we’re now in the 21st century and that story is set in the Civil War, these characters are familiar. Their speaking patterns are familiar, the manner of thinking. I just understood it. I was thinking: People fall in love, people die, it’s perfect for an opera.”

The plot involves a Confederate soldier named Inman deserting the army to return, at great peril, to Cold Mountain to be with the preacher’s daughter he’d fallen in love with shortly before enlisting.

Opera Philadelphia co-commissioned Cold Mountain with the Santa Fe Opera (as it had done with “Oscar,” the Oscar Wilde opera which just finished it’s Philadelphia run). Sante Fe will get the world premiere this summer, before the East Coast premiere in Philadelphia next February.

Opera Philadelphia’s 2015-2016 season will also feature Donizetti’s Elixir of Love, Strauss’ Capriccio, and a new production of La Traviata.

The season will open with the premiere of Andy: a Popera, an opera about Andy Warhol that has been in development for almost two years. A local cabaret company, The Bearded Ladies, have been developing it through a devised theater method of improvisation, group experimentation, and drag.

Opera Philadelphia has teamed the cabaret with composer Dan Visconti to turn its theatrical concepts into a fully formed opera. It will premiere as part of Philadelphia’s Fringe Festival.

“It’s the wackiest thing we’ve ever done,” said Opera Philadelphia director David Devan.

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