Wuorinen’s Opera Misses Tenderness Of ‘Brokeback Mtn.’

Jack (Tom Randle, left) invites Ennis (Daniel Okulitch) for a friendly beer before they leave for the mountain in Charles Wuorinen's 'Brokeback Mountain.'  (Photos by Javier del Real)
Jack (Tom Randle, left) invites Ennis (Daniel Okulitch, right) for a beer before things heat up in ‘Brokeback Mountain.’
(Production photos by Javier del Real, Teatro Real, Madrid, world premiere Jan. 28, 2014)
By Susan Brodie

MADRID – Brokeback Mountain, Charles Wuorinen’s new opera about forbidden love between two cowboys, opened at Madrid’s Teatro Real on Jan. 28. The second new American work brought by former intendant and current artistic adviser Gerard Mortier to the Madrid stage, it’s a vivid evocation of the grandeur and constraints of America’s wide open spaces, but the muted emotional impact makes it something short of a modern Fanciullo del West.

As young ranch hands, Ennis and Jack discover love and keep it secret.
As young ranch hands, Ennis and Jack discover love and keep it secret.

The genesis of the opera goes back to Ang Lee’s 2005 film version of Annie Proulx’s 1997  short story in the The New Yorker.  The composer was inspired by the love story’s operatic potential; when he asked Proulx for permission to write the opera, she asked if she could write the libretto. In 2007, New York City Opera’s newly named general director, Mortier, commissioned the opera from Wuorinen for a New York premiere, but things happened  and Mortier never came to New York. So when he took over Madrid’s Teatro Real, he brought the opera with him.

It’s the story of two young ranch hands, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, hired to tend sheep on an isolated mountain in Wyoming in the summer of 1963. An evening of drinking leads to intimacy, which becomes 20 years of secret, long-distance love.  Passionate reunions and fights punctuate the humdrum of jobs and family lives that last until Jack’s death, which Ennis learns of from a returned postcard stamped “deceased.”

The production’s final performance will be streamed live from the Teatro Real on Feb. 7 at 8 p.m. CET (2 p.m. EST). Viewers outside of Spain can watch live on Medici TV – details here. The performance will be available on demand for three months on Medici TV and for six months on ARTE Live Web.

In an interview, at right, Wuorinen said he wanted to deviate from the movie’s lush cinematography by putting more emphasis on the strong influence of nature and on the ever-present dangers of life in rural Wyoming, where death could come from weather, avalanche, or, for a gay man in 1963, homophobia. Proulx’s libretto expanded on the protagonists’ domestic lives, and Wuorinen structured the work in two acts of eleven scenes each. To control the pacing of the story, Wuorinen connected the scenes with interludes which become shorter and fewer as the drama proceeds.

On Brokeback Mountain, forbidden love can find its way.  World premiere Jan. 28, 2014 by Charles Wuorinen and Annie Proulx.(Javier del Real-Teatro Madrid)
The vast isolation of rural Wyoming also brings a sense of freedom.

Director Ivo van Hove, working with regular collaborators Jan Versweyveld (sets and lighting), Wojciech Dziedzic (costumes), and dramaturg Jan Vandenhouwe, made the stage a bare white box. Video projections showed the grandeur and harshness of the Wyoming landscape, sometimes fading from color to black and white, slowing the action, or dissolving away to intensify a scene’s emotional charge.

In contrast to the mountain scenes, furniture crowded the stage for the domestic scenes, giving a sense of Jack and Ennis’ confinement in their conventional roles, while the empty space of the mountain scenes underlines the freedom they feel on Brokeback Mountain, the “happy place” where they can be themselves. Tellingly, on their final camping trip the stage is still charged with furniture from the last scenes, suggesting how the demands of daily life impinge on their happiness together.

The looming elephant in the room is the suitability of Wuorinen’s music as operatic material, especially for such a tender and tragic story. An eloquent and erudite composer and academic, the 75-year old Wuorinen established himself as a pioneer of the New York avant-garde movement in the 1960s. In 1971, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his only electronic composition, Time’s Encomium. More recent work ranges from Renaissance transcriptions and arrangements to characterful, spiky, and energetic commissions for pianists like Anne-Marie McDermott and Ursula Oppens.

Wuorinen has devoted followers, but his style is not ingratiatingly melodic. His 2002 opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories, premiered at New York City Opera, was a challenge to most listeners. Despite a charming staging of the Salman Rushdie tales, the vocal writing was so challenging that the chorus, singing from the orchestra pit, received musical cues via headphones from an electronic keyboard. Listeners, however, were on their own, and the work won few fans.

Brokeback‘s vocal lines are less unfriendly to the singers – for this score, Wuorinen provided more instrumental support in the orchestra. At times, the angular writing has speech-like contours, but elsewhere it simply sounds difficult for no apparent reason. Wuorinen’s instrumental writing is more successful, and there are moments in the earlier interludes that echo the mountain grandeur of the video.

Alma (Heather Buck) lashes out at Ennis when the truth is bared.
Alma (Heather Buck) lashes out at Ennis when the truth is bared.

The real question is why, in a tragic love story spanning 20 years, the most expressive singing comes when the women raise their voices in anger. Alma and Lureen let fly, while Jack and Ennis quarrel with gusto, but they never sing their hearts out. The cautious, bland phrases that convey their regrets may fit Proulx’s telegraphic sensibility, but an opera about an inability to communicate contradicts the potential of the art form.

Musically, the most striking moment comes with the opening notes, a bone-rattling, darkly rumbling low C in the bass instruments, as herd boss Aguirre, dressed in black like a cross between Wotan and Darth Vader, strides across the stage holding a rifle. But this dramatic sound loses its ominousness as it is reintroduced again and again during the two hours. There are no musical motifs to catch the ear – one yearns for a lyrical melody to convey the deep emotions. Twenty-two scenes and thirteen interludes without intermission result in a strung-out marathon of a narrative that struggles to create a dramatic arc. One scene follows another without capturing the immense longing that drives the two men, and there’s no humor to leaven the pacing. In the absence of an emotional payoff, even the seamless scene changes couldn’t keep folks from glancing at their watches.

Performances by the mostly American cast were impressive; all the singers were secure with the difficult writing and infused their characters with as much feeling as the music allowed. As Ennis del Mar, a strong, silent type, baritone Daniel Okulitch showed the gradual if limited thawing of a man slow to own his emotions. Tenor Tom Randle, as the more expressive and self-accepting Jack Twist, traced a reverse path, by evening’s end adopting the sprechstimme of Ennis’ first utterances.

Lureen (Hannah Esther Minutillo) and her father (Ethan Herschenfeld) in Brokeback Mountain by Charles Wuorinen and Annie Proulx world premiere Jan. 28, 2014 Teatro Real Madrid (Javier del Real)
Hog-Boy tells daughter Lureen he doesn’t like her boyfriend Jack.

Soprano Heather Buck, who made a strong impression in Haroun, infused vitality into Ennis’ disappointed, long-suffering wife, Alma. Mezzo-soprano Hannah Esther Minutillo, as Jack’s wife, Lureen, was both shrewd and sensuous, with a lush and agile voice. Bass Ethan Hirschenfeld was sonorous and menacing both as the herd boss Aguirre and as Jack’s tough father-in-law. Music director Titus Engel kept things together with aplomb.

Staging a new opera is a high-stakes endeavor. Workshop readings and performances give emerging composers the chance to hone their work during the development of a stage piece. Perhaps a similar process would have helped Wuorinen fulfill Brokeback Mountain‘s potential as a tragic modern love story.

Tickets for remaining performances at the Teatro Real may be ordered here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan_Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!



  1. This review is completely spot on! I saw the broadcast yesterday and while I thought that the performances and staging were terrific, I couldn’t help but think that none of the melancholy of the story came through.
    I found the libretto really beautiful with some wonderful lines and with plenty of potential for some incredibly dramatic scenes.
    The music, on the other hand fell incredibly flat. I don’t think anyone was expecting a gay version of La Bohème, but this score seems like it was purposefully composed not enhance the emotional context of the text.
    I found it dry, brainy and just not compelling at all in the sense that it didn’t do anything for the action. It was like 2 separate worlds: in one you had the singers saying really beautiful things put to incredibly dry music without any attempt to convey emotional content.
    Because it’s so complex it ends up losing strength for sounding exactly the same for 2h, there’s never tenderness in it even when the characters’ situation depicts that.
    I hope that someone else is able to pick the libretto and write new music in a completely different direction. More Korngold, less late 2nd viennese school

  2. Thank you, Ms Brodie, for this fair-minded and well-researched review. I had wondered how the story’s subtle internal psychology could be conveyed in the context of a Western ranch lifestyle overlain by Wuorinen’s complex, abstract musical language. It seemed like too many aesthetics colliding. You navigated through this treacherous terrain with admirable insight and economy. Bravo.

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