When word emerged this week that an operatic version of Brokeback Mountain is in the works, with a score by Charles Wuorinen, a lot of people in the classical music world weren't sure what to think. For a start, the news appeared in the Rush and Molloy gossip column in New York's tabloid Daily News — not a place the industry thinks to look for breaking developments. And the combination of material, medium and music seemed wildly improbable: a spare short story by Annie Proulx about inarticulate Wyoming sheepherders — which, granted, had been made into a film that was very compelling but was far from histrionic — translated into the most histrionic of art forms? With a composer who's one of America's last major unrepentant modernists?
It was hard not to wonder if this was some sort of out-of-season April Fool's joke ...
"I think it's a marvelous idea," Wuorinen's manager, Howard Stokar, told Playbill Arts. "And so did Annie Proulx ... she liked the idea of it being an opera, and she liked the idea of Charles composing it."
There's no commission or opera house involved just yet — says Stokar, "Right now, it's really just under discussion. Who knows what's going to happen?" — but Proulx's approval means that one major hurdle that fells many worthwhile projects has been cleared. (Leonard Bernstein, for instance, is said to have worked on a treatment of Nabokov's Lolita but couldn't get rights to the story.)
The idea for a Brokeback opera was all Wuorinen's. "He wanted to work on a dramatic piece," said Stokar, "and this seemed like the perfect subject."
After Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the composer's adaptation of Salman Rushdie's novel for children which premiered at New York City Opera in 2004, Wuorinen was eager to create another stage work. "He was very impressed with the movie adaptation of the short story," said Stokar, "and he thought it would be quite marvelous as an opera. In a way, it's a good old-fashioned love story."
Would Proulx's taciturn characters fit best in a chamber opera? "It would be a big piece," Stokar said, "something for an actual opera house."
Wuorinen is certainly aware of the problems involved in translating the story for the stage. "What's impressive about the film adaptation is that it really has an excellent screenplay," Stokar pointed out. "Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana did a terrific job of turning this little work of prose" — the original "Brokeback Mountain" is barely more than 10,000 words — "into a two-hour movie. Something similar would have to be done for an opera — for example, the language in the film is not language you can use in an opera. Who that's gonna be [to write the libretto], of course, it's much too early to say."
(A tip of the broad-brimmed hat to blogger and New Yorker critic Alex Ross for the headline.)