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Jennifer Higdon's 'Cold Mountain turns the epic novel into opera

NEW YORK - Keeping a grand opera under wraps is like hiding a brontosaurus. For starters, why would you want to?

NEW YORK - Keeping a grand opera under wraps is like hiding a brontosaurus. For starters, why would you want to?

But after years of Curtis Institute workshops closed to everyone who didn't absolutely need to be there, the Jennifer Higdon/Gene Scheer opera Cold Mountain had its first public preview on Monday at the Guggenheim Museum here. (It opens Aug. 1 at the Santa Fe Opera, and will be performed in February 2016 by Opera Philadelphia.) Now it's finished and the authors no longer need to keep it private.

"It was totally cool getting to hear it out of my brain and coming from the actual singers," composer Higdon said. "We only came together at 3 p.m. this afternoon. Some of the singers I hadn't met yet. My music is fairly hard, too."

Even on a small, bare stage in the Guggenheim's subterranean auditorium - and with only piano accompaniment - the Civil War-era theatricality was apparent. "I'm a nice guy in real life, but when I get on stage, I want to kill somebody and go crazy and be a horrible human being," said tenor Jay Hunter Morris, whose favorite role is Ahab in Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick. In Cold Mountain, he plays the ruthless Teague, whose Home Guard hunts down war deserters and isn't above burying them alive. In fact, that's what happens in the first scene. That couldn't have been easy to compose.

"When I started writing that character, I was nauseous," Higdon acknowledged.

The performance was part of the Works & Process series, something of a rite of passage for many new works, which have trial runs with equal measures of music and talk. Most of the major Cold Mountain players were there, both in the creative team and cast of singers, plus the one person whom everybody reverently feared: The author of the original, 1997 best-selling novel Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier.

"When I wrote Moby-Dick, I wasn't worried about getting e-mails from Herman Melville," librettist Scheer said.

Left uncompressed, the story would be unmanageably long on stage. The story of wounded, traumatized Confederate soldier W.P. Inman trying to make his way home to Cold Mountain and the woman he loves is loosely based on The Odyssey, though many of the characters were genuine figures in the Civil War. Of course, one never really knows how an author will react to his characters' being made to sing. That barrier was passed during one of the private Curtis Institute workshops.

"It was strange, because in the book, Inman can hardly speak. It took a little adjustment," he acknowledged.

"You looked like you were in shock," stage director Leonard Foglia said.

Co-commissioned by Santa Fe, Philadelphia, and the Minnesota Opera, the lavish production will claim the largest part of Opera Philadelphia's season budget ($2.4 million). The all-star cast, with Morris, Nathan Gunn (Inman), and Isabel Leonard (Ada), was hired long ago. Gunn had an engagement that conflicted with the Guggenheim event, so he was replaced by recent Curtis graduate Jarrett Ott, who also sang the workshops. Ott will be Gunn's "cover" and has so impressed all parties concerned that Santa Fe Opera general director Charles MacKay says, "I won't lose a wink of sleep over Inman."

In a world as fundamentally chaotic as opera, "the stars are aligning," MacKay said.

This is Higdon's first, yet her work has long had a solidity not unlike that of Benjamin Britten, the British composer whose operas such as Peter Grimes have given many 20th-century composers a template for operatic soliloquies, ensembles, and well-paced storytelling. The Cold Mountain excerpts performed Monday showed how well Higdon has mastered the musicalization of conflicting but simultaneous emotions among strongly drawn characters. But not until orchestra replaces piano in Santa Fe will anybody have a true picture.

"She thinks orchestrally," Opera Philadelphia general director David Devan said.

"I'm counting the days," MacKay said.

Creating the opera required nearly a decade, from the first suggestion that Higdon should write in that medium to its completion. Although strongly attracted to Frazier's novel - and having written the vocal setting Dooryard Bloom to Civil War-era poems by Walt Whitman - she didn't initially realize how close the story is to her own backyard. She grew up in rural Tennessee, only 60 miles from Cold Mountain itself.

"The way you speak," she told Frazier, "is so reminiscent of my entire high school. . . . I recognized the poeticness of the people, and the way they tell tales."

Even before Scheer delivered the libretto, Higdon was filling notebooks with musical ideas. Inman, described in the novel as a hollow man due to his war trauma, was drawn in chords without centers, with ambiguous allegiances to major and minor.

The bulk of the work was happening just as Higdon was winning a Grammy and Pulitzer in quick succession in 2009 and 2010. However welcome such recognition is, the intensity of it has been known to stop hearty creative souls in their tracks. Frazier, who won the National Book Award in 1997, told her what to expect. But nobody prepared her for the creative process distinctive to opera.

"I never counted on these characters living in my head," Higdon said. "They don't ever go away. They're there at night. They're there during the day. They were telling me what kind of music they needed."

And what did those characters say after the Guggenheim event? "They're saying, 'Stay tuned,' " she said, "though I keep hearing Inman saying, 'Why did you have to kill me at the end?' "