Last fall, we told you how folks struck on the idea to adapt Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage into an opera. The second installment of our series reunites you with the creative team.

From Sage to Stage, Part II

Written by Michael Grady Category: Arts Issue: May 2016
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The first musical moments of Riders of the Purple Sage charge out of the gate: lofty horns, pounding drums and a big, sprawling score that has you expecting The Magnificent Seven

Craig Bohmler, who composed the music for Arizona Opera’s upcoming adaptation of the celebrated Zane Grey novel, says that’s the idea.

“The first minute and a half, we let the audience know they’re in a Western,” he says, air-conducting a recording from his Scottsdale studio. “They haven’t been to a Western opera before. So we give ‘em a nod to the West they know. We give ‘em some tunes. They say, ‘Okay, I like these tunes!’ And THEN… we challenge them!”

How that challenge unfolds – and what it will look like – is still a work in progress. In the play Amadeus, Mozart creates operas “as if taking dictation from God.” In real life, the process is more human and collaborative. “People think opera is a single art form,” Riders soprano Karin Wolverton says. “It’s really about 20 art forms smashed together.” 

Last year, Arizona Opera unveiled its plans for the production, its first world premiere and the first opera written by an American living in the Western United States. As Riders’ February 2017 opening date approaches, designers, directors, writers and performers converge to hone the work inside and out. They will smash their best creative ideas together, in the hope of producing a diamond when the curtain rises.

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Wanted: Gorgeous Canyon, for Singing and Violence

“So far, I think it’s going pretty well,” artist Ed Mell reports from his Phoenix studio. In Grey’s original novel, the land itself is a character. And Mell, Arizona’s foremost landscape artist, was recruited to bring it to life.

“We have pretty much designed the Surprise Canyon scene,” he says. The canyon is the story’s hidden Eden, where Riders’ embattled rancher/heroine Jane and the gunman, Lassiter, square off against their Mormon enemies. The set will blend Mell’s angular majesty with impressive physical sprawl: “Fifty-four-feet wide, with 25-foot cliff faces near the audience,” he says. “And you’ll get this sense of the canyon opening up as the characters approach. It’s a pretty neat effect.”

The challenge of putting vast horizons between Symphony Hall’s exit signs so intrigued Mell that, at 73, he agreed to become a scenic designer for the first time. He has risen to the challenge, coordinating his images with the technical needs of sightlines, acoustics and scenery pieces. 

“It’s a learning process. We have to tell the story, and I need input to do it correctly. But I’ve got good people to keep me on the right road.” From here, he’ll design moveable pieces – like the Mormon church and the Withersteen Ranch – that extend his distinctive look down to the stage floor. “When we get to the more ethereal stuff, like the stampede, that’s going to be real collaborative.”

Oh, yeah. Did we mention there’s a stampede in Riders? It comes between the shootouts and the avalanche. Opera is a medium where emotions run high. And Zane Grey puts a lot of cowboys in the room. When you bring all that together, you’re going to lose your security deposit.

So how will the opera’s designers fuse the mayhem with the majesty? 

“Well, we’re not putting cows onstage,” Mell says with a chuckle. “They make a mess of everything.”

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While the specifics are still “evolving,” Riders videographer Kristin Atwell hints that the opera’s runaway herd will combine digital effects and old-fashioned stagecraft. “We’ll use front projections, hard set, lighting effects, music and dust,” she says. “Abstraction is certainly part of it. Maybe we’ll see horses, a part of a horse: an eye, a hoof. Rapidly-projected images.”

As Mell, Atwell, AZO director of production Doug Provost and stage director Fenlon Lamb sort out the exterior world where Riders unfolds, another crew works on the interior landscapes of the characters driving the story.

Meanwhile, Back at the Script…

Riders of the Purple Sage is a beloved classic,” librettist Steven Mark Kohn says. “The action in it soars. But the dialogue, in many parts, is stilted.” 

The original novel, Kohn points out, was written back in 1911, when modern storytelling was in its infancy, women’s suffrage was a radical concept, and a cruise on the Titanic was still an appealing idea. As the artist who adapted the novel into a stageable story, Kohn spent years carefully separating the timeless moments from the dated and flat. “Our primary concerns were the Mormons and Jane,” he says.

Grey’s novel, written in an era of dastardly, mustache-twirling villains, portrays the local Mormons as relentlessly evil. “They blind Lassiter’s horse and do so many awful things,” Kohn says. “Today’s audiences have been raised on television and movies, and demand more dimension from characters.” 

Without changing the plot, Kohn worked with Bohmler to show bits of the story from the Mormons’ point of view. “That’s why, in Act Three, we see the Mormons gathering in town for their sunrise service – singing ‘Come Come Ye Saints.’ Craig has put little leitmotifs like that all over the place. It makes the Mormons in the story more human, more believable, and Jane’s struggle between faith and religion more difficult.”

The bigger problem was Jane, Riders’ lead character. Actress Karin Wolverton, who will play Jane, spotted it in New York last year as she prepared for her audition. “I read the book, to get inside Jane’s head,” she says. “There are parts where Jane seems very independent, but then other parts where she’s very much the victim, looking to be rescued.” The character’s ‘damsel in distress’ tendencies also bothered Kohn and Bohmler as they led the opera through workshops.

“That’s a note that came out in the audience surveys,” Bohmler recalls. “Here’s a woman [Jane] who has been running a ranch with 60-70 men for 12 years. But she comes out at the top of the show and the Mormon elders just push her around.”

In their adaptation, Kohn amplifies Jane’s personal faith to make her a stronger presence throughout. “Grey gave us good bones,” he says. “Jane turns to her faith for strength later in the book. In the opera, Jane uses it to push back against her church when it twists power to serve its own ends.”

That difference registered with Wolverton when she sang Jane in her audition. “In the aria they gave me, I got a clearer sense of conflict between the obligations of Jane’s church leaders and her own heart telling her, ‘Think for yourself.’ That’s very relatable for a woman alone, under the kind of pressure she faces.”


Galloping Toward Opening Night 

At this writing, Riders’ creative artists are still sharing, and sparring with, their individual ideas. The road between here and next spring – when Bohmler’s overture leaps from the orchestra pit for real – will be fraught with to-do lists, design conferences, conceptual struggles and creative fix-its. 

But that’s exactly where Riders’ creative team wants to be. That’s their Surprise Canyon, where all the wonderful things come together. 

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Wolverton says. “Opera is expensive and difficult to do, so you want to get it right. Then, people will walk away from this production saying, ‘Wow. That was amazing.’”