Charles Wuorinen's "Brokeback Mountain," which had its world premiere last week at the Teatro Real in Madrid, is thus far the opera story of the year. It's a long story, how a cerebral American composer has taken the tragic love story of two cowboys in Wyoming away from Ang Lee's film version back to the raw, harsh, un-romanticized roots in Annie Proulx's original New Yorker short story.
It is also the story of how the opera, originally commissioned for New York City Opera, wound up in Spain to be directed by Belgian provocateur Ivo van Hove. And how much all of this excited the world press.
The long story revolves around Gerard Mortier, the brilliantly visionary Belgian opera impresario. He had been all set to take over New York City Opera until his budget was drastically cut, removing the possibility for him to do for the operatic Big Apple what he had done in Brussels, Salzburg, Austria, and Paris. Instead, Mortier wound up at Teatro Real, where despite Spain's troubled economy he was able to realize such projects originally meant for New York as Philip Glass' "The Perfect American" a year ago and now "Brokeback Mountain."
Mortier, who is now frail and battling pancreatic cancer, has further made Teatro Real home for other great American talents. Playing in tandem with "Brokeback" is the Peter Sellars and Bill Viola production of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," originally created for the Los Angeles Philharmonic as "The Tristan Project." Earlier this season, Mortier presented Sellars' production of Purcell's "The Indian Queen," which included sets by L.A. artist Gronk and the participation of L.A. dancers.
The reception of "Brokeback" has ranged from wistfully sympathetic to respectful to wholeheartedly enthusiastic, with the general feeling that Wuorinen's complex score is beautifully made, excellently colored, carefully detailed and coolly descriptive. The libretto is by Proulx herself.
The next major opera premiere will be Friday when P.Q. Phan's "The Tale of Lady Thi Kính" is produced by Indiana University Opera Theater. Based on the ancient Vietnamese folk tale, "Our Benevolent Buddha Thi Kính," it is said to be the first opera set in Vietnam. "Lady Thi Kính," too, will have a live webcast of the Friday and Saturday evening performances, both at 6 p.m. West Coast time.