Tom Randle (left) and Daniel Okulitch in the opera Brokeback Mountain
In 2005, the film Brokeback Mountain broke ground as a major motion picture portraying a love story about two men: a pair of young cowboys, Ennis and Jack, in the 1960s.
They fall in love during a summer spent tending sheep in the isolation of a fictional mountain in Wyoming. They spend the rest of the film — and their lives — grappling with a love that they have to keep secret.
The film was based on a short story by Annie Proulx, and now it's been turned into an opera by the Pulitizer Prize-winning composer Charles Wuorinen. Proulx herself wrote the words that are sung — the libretto — and Brokeback Mountain, the opera, premiered this week in Madrid.
NPR's Renee Montagne reached Proulx and Wuorinen backstage to talk about this artistic transformation of a forbidden love that ends in a brutal death — a story that seems inherently operatic.
"That's why I wanted to write an opera about it," Wuorinen says. "It's a contemporary version of a universal human problem. Two people that are in love, who can't make it work, and it ends badly."
Proulx's story, which originally appeared in the New Yorker, seemed perfectly compact as it was.
"I thought, it could have been a novel if I enlarged on it, but it was kept very tight to express the inarticulate nature of the two main protagonists," Proulx says. "So, the opera, the libretto, gave a chance for depth and for the characters to grow."
One character whose role expands in the opera, Proulx says, is Ennis' wife, Alma.
"Alma is important because the ranch woman — long suffering, who does all of the chores, who never gets to inherit the property that she so improved — is a neglected figure. So, Alma has to speak for all of those thousands of ranch women who never had a voice."
Wuorinen says there's another more practical reason to beef up roles for women in the opera.
"When you contemplate an evening on stage with two men doing a great deal of the singing, you have to confront the possibility of getting tired of hearing that," he admits. "So, there is a direct practical, theatrical and musical reason for wanting more women in the picture. There is a scene for Alma in the wedding dress shop where she is picking out the gown she will wear in her wedding to Ennis, and that gives me a chance to have a complete change of sonority in the score, with the female voices that have not been present before."
Also in the score, there are even deeper musical considerations.
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