It’s not every day that a new opera is born. Especially not one about cowboys. Sung in English. That opens in Tucson, Arizona.
While other U.S. cities have premiered new operas, I doubt any of them had as many audience members wearing Stetsons and bolo ties.
Riders of the Purple Sage is about fighting for love, power, and, ultimately, survival in the harsh western landscape of the Utah-Arizona border in the 1870s.
There are gunslingers and churchmen, cowboys and rustlers, and more than one mysterious stranger.
But it all revolves around Jane Withersteen, owner of a sprawling sage-covered cattle ranch in a Mormon community. Besides her home, land, and herds of cattle, she possesses a strong will. Her refusal to marry one of the church elders and continued friendship with “Gentiles” (non-Mormons) begins to threaten everything she loves and test her loyalties.
The opera is based on a 1912 bestseller by western novelist Zane Grey. I made it about three-quarters of the way through the audiobook before attending Saturday’s performance.
While the book has been made into a film several times, its adaptation to an opera is brand new, executed by composer Craig Bohmler and librettist Steven Mark Kohn. It’s actually the first time Arizona Opera has commissioned and debuted an opera.
Of course, squeezing a 23-chapter book into a 3-hour opera requires a lot of paring down. Characters are omitted, subplots get simplified, revelations come more quickly. As a result, some developments that made sense in the slow build-up of the novel may seem to lack justification in the abbreviated retelling on stage.
It is, however, an opera. So improbable plot twists and dramatic discoveries might not be so out of place.
On the other hand, the opera goes further than the book in explaining motivations, finding commonalties between characters that seem to have little in common.
As Kohn said during the pre-show Q+A, “Even ‘bad guys’ have a belief in what they’re doing…There are no black-and-white villians. The interactions of people are nuanced.”
Bohmler’s composition opens with the French horns typical of Hollywood Westerns. From there, it’s meant to “go on a journey,” taking the audience along and sounding more like a film score.
When a woman asked during the Q+A whether the music would evoke the western landscape like Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, the composer smiled and said we (the audience) would have to be the judge of that.
Phillip felt Riders was more like a musical than most operas. Bohmler has previously written both, and others have also noted this musical theater influence, which perhaps gives this opera an even more American feel.
Arizona artist Ed Mell is known for his landscape paintings of the American West, especially angular interpretations of rocky desert scenes with billowing clouds overhead. This is his first time as a production’s scenic designer and his work adds incredible depth to the show.
It is projected onto 51.6 x 26.6-foot video wall made from 248 interlocking LED panels.
Honestly, when I read that kind of technical stuff, my eyes tend to glaze over. So lemme just skip to the result, which was awesome.
The backdrop looks like a gorgeous, giant Ed Mell painting. And, then, just like on a windy afternoon, the clouds begin to move. The light gradually shifts, illuminating different parts of distant cliffs and mesas – and perhaps subtly reflecting the emotions of the characters. The painting’s colors grow warmer and deeper as the sun sets with a crimson sky giving way to a deep blue twilight with the moon shining from behind a cloud, making its edges glow.
It reminded Phillip of a John Ford movie. It reminded me of sitting outside in the open desert.
Even though it basically worked like magic, it didn’t distract from the opera, serving only to enhance the setting and mood.
We thoroughly enjoyed watching Riders of the Purple Sage, and there’s something really exciting about seeing a show in its first run. You don’t have to be an opera aficionado or western enthusiast to get into the story and this beautiful production.
You still have a chance to see Riders in Phoenix this weekend. And it’s totally okay to show up wearing a bolo tie.
– More info –
- Upcoming performances of Riders of the Purple Sage are March 3, 4, 5 at Phoenix Symphony Hall.
- Friday and Saturday shows are at 7:30pm. Available tickets range $30-160.
- The Sunday 2pm show is nearly sold out with remaining tickets $110-175. Afterwards is a Meet the Cast Q+A.
- There’s a pre-show talk an hour before all performances.
- Get a preview of the music on Soundcloud.
- Phoenix Symphony Hall adjoins the West Building of Phoenix Covention Center.
- Light rail stop: 3rd Street.
- Check out our Phoenix Convention Center tips.
- Work and biography of scenery designer Ed Mell.
- The Ed Mell Gallery is typically open by appointment only.
- Opening Reception for a show of new works: Saturday, March 4, 10am to 5pm.
- You don’t need to read the book before going to the opera. It’s just a good read.
- Public Domain audiobook available on LibriVox.
- E-book available in various formats (Kindle, EPUB, PDF, etc.) via Internet Archive.
1. Arizona desert view on the way back from Tucson.
2. Program and ticket for Tucson Music Hall show.
3. Morgan Smith as Lassiter by Tim Trumble.
4. Karin Wolverton as Jane Withersteen by Tim Trumble.
5. Tucson Music Hall.
6. Amanda Opuszynski and Joshua Dennis as Bess and Bern Venters by Tim Trumble.
7 + 8. Arizona desert en route to/from Tucson.
9. Pre-show Q+A with composer Craig Bohmler and librettist Steven Mark Kohn.
10. View from the controlling laptop on the tech table in Tucson Music Hall by Tim Trumble.
11. Back side of the video wall and interlocking panels by Tim Trumble.
12. Photo by Tim Trumble.
13. Joshua Dennis as Bern Venters by Tim Trumble.
14. Purple chapparal sage in Tucson.
We were guests of Arizona Opera.