Critic's Notebook: 'Brokeback Mountain,' the opera

Jack Nasty sings

I was super-curious when a DVD copy of the opera Brokeback Mountain crossed my desk recently. The opera, which had its world premiere at Madrid's Teatro Real in 2014, features music by American composer Charles Wourinen, who approached author Annie Proulx to write the libretto. The opera closely follows the narrative, dialogue and details from the 2005 Ang Lee film and from Proulx's original 1997 New Yorker short story on which the Oscar-winning film is based.

The idea  may sound unlikely at first, but the story is actually perfectly suited for opera: all that frustrated longing, the idyll of the first summer on Brokeback Mountain, the many meetings and partings across the years, a couple kept apart by insurmountable social forces, all of it ended by a sudden, tragic death, and heartbreaking regret. Unfortunately Wourinen's complex, melody-free modernism keeps the emphasis on themes of isolation and the harsh social realities separating Jack and Ennis (One wonders what a composer like Puccini might have done with the same material). A viewer encountering the story of Brokeback for the first time in the opera might reasonably assume that the place Brokeback Mountain is haunted rather than idyllic, so ominous and foreboding are the discordant tonal progressions and kettle drum rumbling that accompany the early action of Act I. Strangely, it's a musical mood that pretty much stays throughout the work, whether we're watching scenes of Alma, Ennis' fiancée, picking out a wedding dress or Jack and Ennis buying whiskey at a bar. Something lyric along the way might have been fitting, but in the end you're unlikely to turn off the DVD whistling any of the tunes unless you want to creep someone out.

If you're not an opera fan already, Brokeback is definitely not the work that will turn you into a convert. Still, the Teatro Real production does feature starkly beautiful sets, lighting and projections from stage director Ivo Van Hove, and the DVD might make an interesting addition to the collection of completists or hardcore fans of the 2005 film: Proulx's narrative does include a bit more backstory for Alma and Lurleen, Ennis and Jack's wives, than either the film or short story.


Fans of modern opera in Atlanta are actually in luck in the coming weeks. On Sat., May 16, the Royal Opera House of London will stream the full performance of Król Roger on its website, on YouTube, and on the Opera Europa Digital Platform, a new website that showcases live streams and a range of other footage from 15 opera houses across Europe.

The Atlanta Opera is currently preparing its production of Jake Heggie's Three Decembers which will have its regional premiere at the Alliance Theatre beginning May 29, and not far away in Charleston, Spoleto Festival USA is readying the world premiere of Huang Ruo and Jennifer Wen Ma’s Paradise Interrupted which opens May 22.