The two cowboys in Brokeback Mountain – both the Annie Proulx story and the Oscar-winning film – are laconic about most things, and nearly inarticulate about the love affair they don't know to handle in 1963 Wyoming. So how could they possibly succeed as lead characters in opera, a form in which singing about your troubles is practically the main event?
The answer to that question is about to be revealed at Madrid's Teatro Real, where Brokeback Mountain, the opera, opens Jan. 28 with Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as Ennis – the Heath Ledger character. American composer Charles Wuorinen, who wrote the music to Proulx's libretto, isn't giving anything away when he says he never doubted that Ennis and Jack were made for the singing stage.
"It's a typical operatic situation – a love affair that doesn't go well," Wuorinen says on the phone from his home in New York, "but in a frame that I think is much more compelling for contemporary sensibilities than stories about peasant girls having illegitimate babies." The cowboys' difficulty in expressing themselves is not so much a problem as a dramatic opportunity, he says, especially with Ennis.
"Initially he's almost completely inarticulate," says Wuorinen of the opera character.
"His first utterances are just shouts and nods. As the work unfolds, he becomes more and more capable of self-expression, but never fully so until Jack is dead and it's too late. That's the essential tragedy of the piece." Wuorinen, who is 75, began living more or less openly as a gay man in the late 1950s, something he notes was possible in an artistic milieu in Manhattan, as it would not have been in rural Wyoming. He recently married his partner of 25 years, and is grateful for the results of post-Stonewall activism, but he hasn't been an activist himself and doesn't think of his opera as political.
"As a gay man, [the story] is of very direct interest to me, but that in itself begins to smack of identity politics, of which I disapprove," he says. "I would never write a piece just on that basis. It was the combination of the universality and contemporary relevance of the theme that made it very compelling to me."
The key development in the opera, he says, is toward self-knowledge, as Ennis moves from shouts to loosely melodious speech (Sprechstimme) to gradually more lyrical and extensive song, culminating in a big aria after Jack's death. Jack's arc is less dramatic, so his vocal characterization doesn't change nearly as much.
As with most of Wuorinen's work, the opera's underlying structure is deep and not easily perceptible. His music can show an occasional surface similarity to aspects of tonal music – a major or minor chord, for instance – but the principles that govern their use aren't those of traditional harmony.
"I've always acted on an impulse to preserve certain aspects of diatonic music, both in terms of puns on diatonic relationships, but more importantly on a fundamental notion of narrative and narrative flow," he says. Almost everything in his opera is linked to inter-related pitch centres that shape the musical narrative at every level, large and small. Both main characters have their own "principal note" – B for Jack, C-sharp for Ennis, narrowly separated by the note associated with the mountain.
"Before Mozart and Beethoven, C-minor was the key of sleep and death," Wuorinen says. "These two characters who are going to end badly have their basic pitch material founded on these two notes which converge on their doom." One of the shortcomings of the film, which he generally liked, was that the mountain was represented mainly as an idyllic place, without the menace he feels it also represents.
Wuorinen, who wrote his first opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories (2004) with Salman Rushdie, says he found it easy to work with Proulx, whose sparse prose left lots of room for music. "I told her, 'Remember, no matter what it is, it takes twice as long to sing as to say, so simple is best.' But she's already ideally suited for that, because her style is so direct and laconic."
For Okulitch, the big challenge in portraying Ennis, opposite tenor Tom Randle as Jack, may come in the early scenes that require the least singing. That's when he has to project the character without much recourse to his own most powerful asset – his voice.
"How do you play someone for whom it's so foreign to express emotion, without coming across as just dull?" says Okulitch, on the phone from Vancouver. "You can't have a character in an opera just mumbling. There will be a lot of focus on my own physicality, and on bringing out the text" – especially in the Sprechstimme sections. "You have to learn those as if it's a sung line, with the exact note values, and then find a way to make it sound speaky. It still has to be heard at the very back of the auditorium, and it has to be clear that there's some underlying structure, and that you're not just randomly slinging out notes and slurring it."
Okulitch has premiered operatic leads before, in other adaptations of famous stories, including Howard Shore's The Fly (based on the David Cronenberg film). He went after the part of Ennis as soon as he heard about it, and in some ways is more excited by it than by more the familiar characters in his repertoire. "I love singing Escamillo in Carmen, but that guy has no arc at all, while Ennis goes on an enormous journey," he says.
The opera has already outlived the company that was originally in line to produce it – New York City Opera, which went out of business last year. Given the fame of the story and the film, it's likely that a North American production will follow the initial run – if the writer's laconic cowboys take to the opera stage as well as the composer believes.