Posted by on Mar 2, 2017 in Travel | 0 comments

Arizona landscape

It’s not every day that a new opera is born. Especially not one about cowboys. Sung in English. That opens in Tucson, Arizona.

However, this past weekend, Phillip and I got to see the world premiere of Arizona Opera’s Riders of the Purple Sage at Tucson Music Hall.

Riders of the Purple Sage program

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. Photo by Tim Trumble. Morgan Smith as Lassiter.

The Story

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.

Riders of the Purple Sage. Photo by Tim Trumble.

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.

Riders of the Purple Sage at Tucson Music Hall.

The Adaptation

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.

Riders of the Purple Sage. Photo by Tim Trumble.

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.

Arizona desert.

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.”

Arizona mountains

The Music

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.

Riders of the Purple Sage pre-show

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.

Riders of the Purple Sage. Photo by Tim Trumble.

The Scenery

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.

Riders of the Purple Sage. Photo by Tim Trumble.

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.

Riders of the Purple Sage. Photo by Tim Trumble.

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.

Riders of the Purple Sage. Photo by Tim Trumble.

The Conclusion

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.
purple sage in tucson

– More info –

The Opera

  • 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.

The Venue

The Artist

The Novel


Photos:
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.