Singing cowboys on the Madrid stage

The opera of 'Brokeback Mountain' receives its world premiere at the Teatro Real

Actors Tom Randle and Hannah Esther Minutillo, in a scene from Brokeback Mountain.
Actors Tom Randle and Hannah Esther Minutillo, in a scene from Brokeback Mountain.Carlos Alvarez

Only when the fire dies out, and the cold mountain air freezes Ennis del Mar's blood, does the rough and silent ranch hand agree to share the same tent with Jack Twist. Just like in Ang Lee's movie and in the original short story by Annie Proulx, the shadows of that encounter are the turning point in this opera version of Brokeback Mountain, which receives its world premiere at Madrid's Teatro Real on Tuesday.

An opera about gay cowboys? (Or, as some critics have pointed out, bisexual shepherds?) Perhaps the tragic story is not so different from the old operatic tales of a pregnant woman suffering in silence, except it has been adapted to our times. At least, that is the way that composer Charles Wuorinen saw it when he watched Ang Lee's movie version and later read the original story in search of elements for his new score.

Wuorinen spoke with Proulx, who agreed to the project as long as she could write the libretto herself. News of it reached the ears of Gerard Mortier, then the recently appointed general director of the New York City Opera, who commissioned the piece and took it with him when he suddenly left for Madrid in 2008.

The composer began working on the piece in 2008, and did not complete it until February 2012. Although he is an eclectic musician who has worked in a broad range of styles, including one other opera, Wuorinen is hard to classify. The score he has come up with is a kind of updated version of the 12-tone technique, with a sound that is closer to Schönberg, Stravinsky or Elliott Carter than his contemporary colleagues from New York. The opera's two acts are performed without an intermission.

Author Annie Proulx agreed to the project as long as she could write the libretto

Ultimately, both the musical score and the libretto underscore the idea that he and Proulx wanted to bring home to audiences in this new version: a sense of threat, danger and cruelty that was more absent from Ang Lee's film, with its beautiful scenery.

"We would say that the movie is more Puccini. The landscape there is very pretty and welcoming. It doesn't give you that sense of threat and danger," says Wuorinen, who traveled to Wyoming to see the setting of the original story for himself. "But the real mountains of Wyoming are very dangerous. People die, and so do animals, and the weather can turn violent all of a sudden. Yet at the same time the mountain represents freedom for these characters, the place where they can develop. It has a double meaning."

Proulx's concise writing style helped greatly with the opera project, and Wuorinen only intervened to suggest changes to a few words that would not work so well in song.

The stage direction, by Belgian Ivo van Hove, found inspiration in the schematic, evocative work of US painter Edward Hopper. The first of three scenes depicts the meeting between both ranch hands against a giant screen showing video footage of Wyoming that is remarkably devoid of natural poetry. Van Hove notes that these men are being forced to accept a very tough job that nobody else wants to do: to go up a mountain where it gets freezing cold at night, where there is no food and where the only visitors they are going to get are coyotes, and the footage reflects that.

Gerard Mortier commissioned it in New York and took it with him to Madrid

The second scene shows the domestic lives of both lovers, as they go through the motions of their unsatisfactory relationships with their respective wives. Both routines are seen side by side, a bit like in Lars von Trier's film Dogville. This is where Proulx developed the libretto more, adding new details to the story, says the stage director. The third scene represents the emptiness that surrounds a desolate Ennis del Mar who cannot cope with the terrible consequences of his emotional paralysis. It is only at this point that the baritone stops chewing out the words and really begins to sing and express his emotions for Jack Twist (played by the tenor Tom Randle).

The opera has created record-breaking media expectation at Teatro Real, and is already well on its way to becoming - as the movie did - a symbol of the silent struggle against discrimination. Yet neither of its creators wants to define it as a gay love story. Even so, Van Hove is glad that all the attention will put a spotlight on places where being different is still cause for persecution.

"This opera is about a very conservative society that does not want to accept differences," he said. "And that is still happening, especially to gay people, in places like India, Russia... The world is becoming a complicated place for people who do not belong to one place or a given community."

Annie Proulx herself explains it succinctly: "Brokeback Mountain is a very, very old story. Ever since humans have been around, there have been lovers in impossible situations. In part, what makes Brokeback... different is that the lovers are not princes and princesses but two rough ranch hands from a spread in Wyoming. Ennis Del Mar in particular does not understand what is happening to him, and he resists admitting who and what he is, from the beginning to the bitter end."

Brokeback Mountain. Until February 11 at Teatro Real, Madrid.

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