‘Cold Mountain’ finds fresh voice with Opera Philadelphia

 Opera Philadelphia stages

Opera Philadelphia stages "Cold Mountain." (Emma Lee/WHYY)

It is a National Book Award-winning novel, an Academy Award-winning film, and now it’s an opera.


Opera Philadelphia, a co-commissioner of “Cold Mountain,” will stage its East Coast premiere this weekend. (The world premiere was staged last year by the other commissioning company, Santa Fe opera.)

The Free Library of Philadelphia decided to piggyback on the premiere by choosing “Cold Mountain” for its One Book, One Philadelphia citywide reading program.

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Despite all its variations, author Charles Frazier was reluctant to give up control of his story. 

“I think that’s my role, to be the gatekeeper,” he said.

He opened that gate in 2010 when he got a call from composer Jennifer Higdon just weeks after she had won a Pulitzer Prize. She was looking for material to write her first opera.

Frazier quickly gave Higdon carte blanche to do whatever was necessary to realize her vision of “Cold Mountain.” He found her to be an artist at the height of her creativity.

“I cannot imagine somebody who doesn’t know about writing a novel, looking over my shoulder saying, ‘I’ve got 10 great ideas that you need to incorporate,'” said Frazier.

“That is an amazing piece of permission to get from an author,” said Higdon. “It’s really letting go of the story and the character and hoping somebody will take care of them. I promised to take care of the characters. I said I would do my best to do justice by them. “

Those characters are Ada, a young woman holding down a farm in North Carolina; Inman, a deserting Confederate soldier trying to get back to her; and Ruby, a farmhand trying to prove she’s tough enough to do the job.

Higdon felt close to the characters right off the bat. She grew up in the eastern part of Tennessee, not far from the real Cold Mountain. Although she’s now based in Philadelphia, the speech and mannerisms of the characters were home for her.

Their stories unfold over the novel’s 450 pages. Higdon and her librettist, Gene Scheer, had to whittle the book down to something that could be staged in under three hours.

“Gene Scheer and I sat down at Starbucks at 10th and Chestnut, four or five years ago, to figure out key scenes that advance the story of Ada, Inman, and Ruby,” said Higdon. “All three of these characters have a transformation in the novel. “

The novel makes often makes musical references, mostly to songs that were popular in the mid-19th century.

“Charles Frazier writes about music more than a typical novelist,” said Higdon. She struggled with the idea of lifting traditional melodies into her score. How many times should she quote “Bonaparte’s Retreat”? In the end, she rejected the idea.

“It might pull the listener out of the world you are creating — the opera stage — and put them in a different space,” said Higdon. “There are bluegrass things I wrote that are synthetic bluegrass. They don’t come from real mountain tunes.”

The bones of “Cold Mountain” trace the tale of Odysseus: a war-weary soldier struggles to journey home as his beloved struggles to keep that home intact. Frazier said, at its heart, “Cold Mountain” is the oldest story around.

“I read a lot of the Greeks. They knew how to cut to the bone,” said Frazier. “We think of things progressing over time. But go back and read the Greeks. Things don’t get better.”

That’s why the novel can survive translation into film, opera, and 35 different languages, and counting, Frazier said.

“Cold Mountain,” produced by Opera Philadelphia, will be performed at the Academy of Music this weekend and next.

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