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'Brokeback Mountain' opera saddles up in Madrid

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MADRID — With just days left before the world premiere Tuesday of the opera "Brokeback Mountain," the Teatro Real in Madrid was hopping. Sixty feet below the stage, a props guy was painting rosy cheeks on Ennis Del Mar's baby. In the wig shop, farm dad beards for Hog-Boy and Mr. Twist Sr. shared space with luridly colored hair sculptures meant for Jack's wife, Lureen. A few rooms over, the costume rails look like they have been lifted wholesale from a farm supply store.

That Annie Proulx's cowboy love story became an opera at all is mostly down to composer Charles Wuorinen seeing the film and wondering how it might work on stage. "It's an operatic tragedy," he said, "and it embodies an up-to-date form of a problem people have had forever. Stock problem. Stock tragic characters. Loss. We've had that right from when Euridice drops dead in 'Orfeo.'"

Impresario Gérard Mortier thought the project might be a good fit for the New York City Opera, where he was about to become general manager. When he decamped instead to Madrid in 2010, the commission came with him. Another commission from the now-defunct City Opera, Philip Glass' "The Perfect American," about Walt Disney, premiered here last season. (Now ill with pancreatic cancer, Mortier has been less involved in the production of "Brokeback" than he perhaps would have liked.)

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While Mortier was getting situated in Spain, Wuorinen looked for a librettist and discovered that Proulx herself was interested. "One of the great things about opera," said Proulx from her home in Wyoming, "is that it has room to expand emotional stress; the short-story form is a straitjacket, so I was grateful to escape those bounds and be able to open the characters out a bit more."

The libretto hews closer to the original short story than the 2005 film. (In brief: Jack and Ennis herd sheep together one summer on Brokeback Mountain. They fall in love. Jack wants be with Ennis. Ennis says no. They marry women and get together a few times a year. Ennis says yes 20 years later. Too late.) But Wuorinen and Proulx did include a couple of gentle nods to opera convention in the form of a chorus and a ghost.

Said Proulx, "The best candidate for a ghost was Hog-Boy, Lureen's father, full of ultra-Texan self-importance. And in his few lines I was able to plant the faint suspicion that Hog-Boy, through his postmortem connections, was able to arrange Jack Twist's death. [It was] fun in a sly sort of way."

When Ivo van Hove was asked by Mortier to join the project as the director, he was worried that the film had been too familiar. The libretto convinced the Belgian director it was possible to make something new. "The scenes on the mountain are mostly the same, but then, in the second part of the opera, [Proulx] develops much more the sad marriages. Alma [Ennis' wife, sung by Heather Buck] has this moment where she is left alone in the house and she says, 'I don't want this anymore, I don't want to be just a housewife stuck at home doing the laundry.' It's a whole new dimension suddenly."

Wyoming in Spain

It was too early in the rehearsal period for the singers to be in costume, but judging by the amount of plaid on the production team, it seems everyone was getting in the spirit. Bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch out-cowboyed them all with a Canadian tuxedo and leather boots far too worn to have come from the costume department.

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Being from Canada's Texas, it turns out, was perfect preparation for singing Ennis (the Heath Ledger part). "These characters don't seem strange at all," said Okulitch, long limbs draped over a tiny dressing room couch. "I grew up in Calgary, and my mom's side of the family are all rural Albertan farmers. The mythos of the cowboy is strong there. I mean, a lot of it is urban cowboy nonsense, but I can ride a horse if it's going slow enough."

Okulitch and tenor Tom Randle from Los Angeles, who plays Jack, are both straight, and this is the first time either of them have had a leading man. There is kissing, but Okulitch said "there's been no sort of compensating or posturing. 'Brokeback' isn't about how two guys have sex. There's been lots of comical moments — 'Is your leg going to go there? Can you still sing if I put my arm there?' That's with any singer."

"Brokeback" may not be about sex as such, but it is important enough to have a major influence on the score. Wuorinen's music is often described as cerebral or jagged, terms he is weary of. When asked for an acceptable set, he quickly suggested, "beautiful, expressive, evocative" — and then with a mischievous half-smile, "magnificent."

While Wuorinen's other opera "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" leans toward the traditional aria/recitative structure, "Brokeback" is through-composed, meaning there are no stand-alone numbers. "If you move one note in the entire thing, it just vanishes into a puff of smoke," he said with a laugh. His style is 12-tone but not strictly serial.

"I have favorite notes or signal notes for Jack and Ennis," explained the 75-year-old New Yorker. "For Jack it's B natural, and for Ennis it's C sharp. Why is Ennis the lower voice given the higher note? It's because I always imagined, for all his hang-ups, that he was the sexually dominant of the two." When asked to expand, Wuorinen blushed and protested, "I am pure of heart. I don't know what goes on in that tent!" Then he added, After a minute of feigning intense interest in the piano, he recovers enough offer, "The mountain lies between the two of them, so I gave it the pitch C."

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Honoring the minimalist nature of the story and the slow burn of Jack and Ennis' relationship is perhaps the biggest challenge of this project. "It's not operatic, and that was a little bit scary because we are doing it on a big stage," said Van Hove. "The story is told very slowly like the old-fashioned way of developing a photograph."

Wuorinen and Proulx are practical people writing an opera about practical characters. Naturally, any problems encountered were solved with solutions. Ennis barely speaks. No problem. Wuorinen created orchestral interludes to let the dialogue breathe without having total silence. Opera characters need to tell, not show, so Proulx wrote "denser and more dramatic interchanges." She was worried that "barely literate high-plains characters of decades past would not communicate their humanness and anxieties to an audience," so Wuorinen uses sung speech to illustrate Ennis' emotional transformation.

"He only finds his voice as time goes on," said Okulitch. "Opera is different than a film. I can't be on stage and mumble under my breath."

Despite the opera's intrinsic Americanness, there are, at the moment, no plans for an American production and only the beginning of possibilities in Germany. Even so, the opera was not created for just 15 days in Madrid. "It's a story about two cowboys in Wyoming, but it's also the story of Spain or Europe," said Van Hove. "I wanted to respect it as an American story, but I also wanted it to resonate in Shanghai or Chile."

Brokeback's great strength is that it provides no answers. Even with Proulx's second go at the narrative, there is enough left unsaid to fuels hours of post-show conversation. Is Ennis a coward or simply a pragmatist? Is self-actualization only for city people? Would the pair even have even gotten along long-term?

Whatever the answers, the core of the story remains the same: "There are loves that come along and hit you like lightning and they're never to be repeated. And that's what this was for them," said Okulitch. "It's only at the very end that Ennis is able to say who he is. And who's that? He's a man who loves Jack."

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