When composer Jennifer Higdon first saw Anthony Minghella’s Civil War epic, Cold Mountain, she was surprised to learn that much of the 2003 film was shot in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. “I grew up in east Tennessee, not far from Cold Mountain, and the film’s setting looked just like the Smokies,” Higdon says. Years later, Higdon, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2010 for her violin concerto, was searching for a subject for her first opera when she came upon Charles Frazier’s book, on which Minghella’s film is based. “I got through the first page and thought, Oh, this is it,” Higdon recalls. “The familiarity of the people, the language, the geographical descriptions—it was a story I felt like I knew.” The odyssey of Inman—a wounded Confederate soldier who deserts and embarks upon a treacherous journey toward home and his love, Ada, in Cold Mountain, North Carolina—seemed ideal for the grand scale of opera. “It’s people falling in love and people dying,” Higdon says in her warm Southern twang. “Very simple. But it’s totally what opera is about—you want interesting characters and you want things to happen to them. And love and death are two of the biggest things.”
Higdon’s Cold Mountain is a relative rarity in the opera world: a quintessentially American story related by a living American composer with an American librettist (Higdon worked closely with Gene Scheer to be sure that accurate Southern dialects were preserved in the English libretto) and an American cast (formidable baritone Nathan Gunn stars as Inman). The opera will premiere at the Santa Fe Opera, which has built a reputation in recent years as an incubator for new music. Higdon’s music—written in a classical style but integrating bluegrass touches (open strings and slides on the violins, a fiddler onstage at one point)—should resonate especially well at this destination opera house, starkly set on a hilltop against the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez Mountains. “To sit there and watch an opera while the sun sets or a storm comes across the mountains,” Higdon says with a sigh, “it’s very dramatic.”
Cold Mountain premieres on August 1 at the Santa Fe Opera (301 Opera Dr.; 505-986-5900; santafeopera.org) and, in February 2016, travels to Opera Philadelphia (1420 Locust St.; 215-893-3600; operaphila.org).