Bad Idea, Mr. Wuorinen

It has been announced that the New York City Opera has commissioned Charles Wuorinen to compose an opera based on Annie Proulx's short story Brokeback Mountain. It is scheduled to premiere in the spring of 2013. Mr. Wuorinen has been quoted as saying "Ever since encountering Annie Proulx's extraordinary story I have wanted to make an opera on it, and it gives me great joy that Gerard Mortier and New York City Opera have given me the opportunity to do so." Mr. Wuorinen has been further quoted as stating that he plans to start on the composition in earnest in 2009.

This time table gives Mr. Wuorinen a number of months to come to his senses, say "Uh, gee, bad idea guys" and abandon the project. Although it is not accurate to state that every facet of this project is utterly wrong-headed, there is enough bad thought in this proposal to fill a reservoir to its banks and beyond.

Let us start with the obvious fact that Mr. Wuorinen is a flagrantly, unabashedly modernist composer. And let's confess also that he is one of the best. He writes music that is intellectually stimulating and endlessly fascinating. However, his music packs the emotional wallop of a statistics textbook. Strike one.

It has also been reported that Annie Proulx has given her blessing to this project and there seems to be some indication that Ms. Proulx wants to write the libretto. This is decidedly bad news. That an author has immense skill as a writer of short stories, novels or stage plays does not mean that he or she has any skill at all as an opera librettist. Writers are, as Mr. Obvious has observed, accustomed to conveying their points in words. On the opera stage there are other, equally potent means to convey the point: the music, the stage set, the direction, the vocal inflection of the performing artists. Great literary works seldom translate effectively on to the opera stage, and when the original author is doing the libretto the odds of success dim further. Strike Two.

If you were going to undertake a search for a story that brims to overflowing with operatic possibilities, Brokeback Mountain would have to be near the bottom of the list. Taken on its own, it is a peerless story of intimacy played out in a setting of vast expanse, and when taken in its context at the end of Proulx's set of stories collected under the title Close Range the raw, unforgiving natural backdrop of Wyoming makes it all the more an intimate tale. This is not the sort of setting that can be evoked in a few bars of music as, for example, Puccini conjured up rough and tumble frontier California at the beginning of La Fanciulla del West. I suspect that by the time Act One is over all of the exposition will have been completed, and the audience will be engaged in intermission chatter over how the tenor was able to avoid stepping into a calling card left on the stage by a sheep.

There is nothing operatic about the relationship between Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, nothing operatic about the self-constructed prisons they have crafted for themselves, nothing operatic about their refusal to let go of convention and their overwhelming conformity, nothing operatic about the tire iron that runs through the story like a golden thread and, simply put, nothing operatic about two cowboys who physically manifest their love for each other in several athletic variations on the principle of "insert penile member A into anal sphincter B" especially when their physical encounters almost never occur face to face. Brokeback Mountain is, to be sure, a magnificent piece of literature. It is told with an economy of expression and precision that is both admirable and deeply moving. But it is as translatable into an opera libretto as the Manhattan White Pages. Strike Three.

Mr. Wuorinen has stated "It's a story of doomed love, and it happened that in this case a large part of the story is a homosexual relationship taking place in a very homophobic society. It's part of the reason why it appealed to me, because that has resonance in our own day. ... this comes from the land of Matthew Shepard after all, so it makes it a little more believable in our own time. People in this kind of relationship had to do what they had to do. They could not fulfill their lives the way they wanted to." If this is, in fact, the way that Mr. Wuorinen views Annie Proulx's story, the project is destined to failure before it starts. The whole point is not that the two cowboys "could not fulfill their lives the way they wanted to." The point is that they could have, but didn't. It is the polar opposite of the old song Taking a Chance On Love. To turn Brokeback Mountain into a polemic is to cheapen it beyond measure.

Annie Proulx's story is many things, but it is not a literary effort that appeals to the logical centers of the brain. It either has emotional resonance or it falls flat as the prairie itself. That fact alone should cause all involved to think twice before asking a composer known for his logic and his relentlessly cerebral manner of composition to set his hand to writing a score for it. "I'm stuck with what I got, caught in my own loop. Can't get out of it," as Ennis states. Mr. Wuorinen is under no such constraints. "On second thought, maybe not" ought to be the subject line of his next e-mail to Gerard Mortier.