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How Landmark LGBT Movie ‘Brokeback Mountain’ Became an Opera

E. Annie Proulx wrote the libretto. Composer Charles Wuorinen and director Jacopo Spirei reveal how they set Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger’s tragic gay love story to music.

Anna-Maria Löffelberger

If you read E. Annie Proulx’s spare novella and saw Ang Lee’s brooding 2005 landmark LGBT movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, then the opera of Brokeback Mountain, which has its American premiere this week at New York City Opera—composed by Charles Wuorinen and directed by Jacopo Spirei—will contain some familiar elements.

With a libretto by Proulx herself, the story remains that of the charged and ultimately tragic 20-year love affair between ranch hand Ennis del Mar (Daniel Okulitch) and rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (Glenn Seven Allen), who love each other and yet—trapped in a very different time—struggle to find a way to be together and articulate their feelings and desires.

You will still see feed bags. The stage features a plausible hunk of mountain. There is still the heartbreaking moment when one of the men buries his devastated face into the folds of the other man’s shirt.

Much else is imagined anew. The men’s secret affair, which takes place over a 20-year time period spanning 1963 to 1983 in rural Wyoming, is expressed in song and music—sometime spare and sometimes rich and soaring. The other two characters are the women in their lives, Ennis’ wife, Alma (Heather Buck), and Jack’s wife, Lureen (Hilary Ginther).

Wuorinen, gay himself, will soon turn 80. He has seen and lived through a time of immense change for LGBT people, but he was born and raised in New York, in a materially comfortable and relatively accepting social and cultural milieu—very different to the heroes of the opera.

This opera, written in the 21st century, is the same as the grand operas of the 19th century in dealing with “relevant and concerning issues,” he said.

I feel obliged to point out the real issue in the opera is not that it has a gay theme, but a deeper one of self-acceptance and self-knowledge.
Charles Wuorinen

“Back then it would have been themes like children being born out of wedlock, matters which do not concern us today in any significant way,” Wuorinen said. “The role of the whole gay issue in one way or another is one that still does. A lot has changed, of course, and I am old enough to remember a very, very different time.”

“I feel obliged to point out the real issue in the opera is not that it has a gay theme, but a deeper one of self-acceptance and self-knowledge,” he added.

“One of the two principal characters is never able to accept his own nature. He skirts the issue, avoids it. He only finally comes to terms with it after it’s too late, which is why he delivers his great monologue at the end. That to me is the essence of the tragedy, not that they’re closeted gays in Wyoming. That’s issue enough, but it’s not the center of it. The center of it is the failure to deal with what one is—as opposed to what other people think one ought to be.”

There’s nothing more intimate than the human voice, and the most intimate thing of the human voice is the singing voice. When we’re kids we go to sleep thanks to our singing mothers. The singing here gets you to the depth of the tragedy.
Jacopo Spirei

“Of course, you can’t compete with the movie when it comes to landscapes for obvious reasons,” said Spirei. “We have tried to transfer the grittiness of the book to the opera. We try and create a much more intimate experience than the film, so you get closer to the characters and not get lost in beautiful landscape.

“We strip it of all romanticism in a way and recreate a sense of reality; a little like what Sergio Leone did in his movies. This makes the love story flourish a lot more because of the background of a tough world, the very harsh reality that these people don’t have money, they struggle in life, it’s not an easy world.”

For Spirei, the medium of singing adds something else. “It feels incredibly close and intimate. There’s nothing more intimate than the human voice, and the most intimate thing of the human voice is the singing voice. When we’re kids, we go to sleep thanks to our singing mothers. The singing here gets you to the depth of the tragedy.

“You get into a much more intimate relationship with the characters because they’re right in front of you. It forces you to think, to listen, to go with these two guys on a really big journey.”

When Wuorinen originally saw Lee’s film years ago, he was struck by its operatic possibilities. The film he felt was overlong, the book more succinct and suitable to adapt into opera.

It had its world premiere at Madrid’s Teatro Real in 2014, under the artistic leadership of Gerard Mortier (who had originally been slated to run New York City Opera; Mortier, who died in March 2014, told Wuorinen he would mount the opera wherever he ended up working).

Wuorinen—who clearly doesn’t suffer fools, or much else he disagrees with, gladly—didn’t love the Ivo van Hove production at the Teatro Real, which, he said, struggled with the concept of “a princess phone.” Alma and Ennis had a modern front-loading washing machine, he said scornfully, which wasn’t correct for the early ’60s small-town Wyoming setting, and which the couple could never have afforded. “They would have a tub and washboard!”

A subsequent German production, Wuorinen said, had been seen by his husband and manager, Howard Stokar, and had included “19th century bar-room floozies with ‘Welcome to Wyoming’ signs.”

Spirei’s 2016 Salzburg production seems to have passed muster with Wuorinen, which—phew—is the production coming to New York.

The traditionally conservative Salzburg audience was “blown away,” reported Spirei, with standing ovations and a lot of tears. “It’s a love story, everyone can relate to the story. Despite all divisions people have—gay, straight, bisexual—it’s love.”

For Spirei, the fact the New York cast is all-American, apart from one Canadian, meant that they knew the cultural associations, references, and grammar. “It was first conceived for New York, and it’s great to be here.”

Proulx produced “a fine libretto,” Wuorinen said. “It was a wonderfully smooth collaboration. “She’s one of those rare people who doesn’t pretend to know things which she doesn’t know, and as a result is very circumspect about her involvement with music.

“I was able to give her some guidance about what kind of words and language were suitable when writing for singing from the stage. Her basic style, being as terse and laconic as it is, was naturally suited to it anyway. It wasn’t a matter of having to pare things down.”

Some words may sound fine as spoken or look good on a page, Wuorinen said, “but they’re not as good as when being screamed from a stage with a lot of noise from an orchestra in the background.”

Wuorinen advised Proulx that if you can shout a word so it’s intelligible, you can sing it, and “the basic rule of thumb that everything when sung takes at least twice as long as it does when spoken.”­­

Proulx’s libretto is also very different from the screen adaptation, which was written by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, Wuorinen said. At the denouement, one of the men explains himself more than in the novella and movie, “because what can be expressed indirectly on the page is something you better get out explicitly from the stage.”

Both Annie and I hate the tendency to politicize every damn thing under the sun. It’s stupid and extraordinarily destructive, and constricting all kinds of freedom of expression that I thought we valued.
Charles Wuorinen

Wuorinen said he and Proulx “bonded over a shared hatred of so many things: various kinds of pretenses, including such things as political correctness and that sort of business. We are veteran complainers about everything. Everything sucks, doesn’t it? Can you deny it?

“Both Annie and I hate the tendency to politicize every damn thing under the sun. It’s stupid and extraordinarily destructive, and constricting all kinds of freedom of expression that I thought we valued.”

When I asked how Wuorinen how he translated Proulx’s spareness to a spare musical style, he laughed. “You don’t translate. I just write my regular music and I’m not going to try and describe it. It’s the most gorgeous, loveliest thing you can possibly hear, and at the same time dramatic and compelling. There’s nothing good that it isn’t.”

“It happens automatically that the music reflects the spareness of the prose," he added, a little more seriously. “It takes twice as long when you sing rather than speak words. To a certain extent, that it’s sung almost exclusively rather than spoken has a way of enriching the language.” The music begins sparely, Spirei said (with occasional sentences of spoken word), then becomes “fuller and richer” as the tragedy develops.

These guys are confronted with big feelings and a big attraction which they perceive as good and everyone else treats as the worst possible thing.
Jacopo Spirei

Showing the relationship of Ennis and Jack, “you get what get from two men who discover being in love with each other and the obstacles of it,” said Spirei. “When they are alone, they are as affectionate as they can be, but with the deep sense of guilt that comes with the time and place they are in. These guys are confronted with big feelings and a big attraction which they perceive as good and everyone else treats as the worst possible thing.”

It was “exciting” to conceive an opera about gay desire, said Spirei. “It’s about time opera discovered these subjects. Opera is about ordinary feelings—love, hate, desire, sex, and violence—and so this is the perfect subject for opera. It’s got this incredible drive and an impossible love. It’s like Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, a forbidden love in a contemporary setting.”

There is some nudity and flesh on stage; the men are seen the morning after sex in bed, not having it. Spirei said he wanted to major on the men’s romance and feelings, to emphasize this was not just a sexual affair. The real challenge of the directing the opera, he said, was “compressing a 20-year relationship and finding the correct rhythm” for a two-hour stage piece.

The opera forces you to see how hard it is to be yourself in a society that doesn’t accept you, feeling like you are the only person on earth who is different with the whole of society telling you that you are wrong to feel what you feel.
Jacopo Spirei

Spirei is straight, and “felt a huge sense of responsibility” in directing the opera sensitively. “I’m really grateful for the journey. It has given me wonderful insight. I constantly put myself in the situations of these guys.

“I come from a very liberal family. There was never anything strange about this. But doing the opera forces you to see how hard it is to be yourself in a society that doesn’t accept you, feeling like you are the only person on earth who is different with the whole of society telling you that you are wrong to feel what you feel—when, of course, there is nothing wrong with how you feel and you should have that freedom to feel.

“The terror of it is striking. It was extraordinary and crushing for me to feel what it is to be a minority and discriminated against.”

When Wuorinen was young and “first self-aware of these matters,” he always knew “exactly what I was and I always tried to act on it. However, 65 years ago it was forbidden, it was assumed to be a mental condition that needed correction. Forget about your Baptist preachers in the backwaters who think they’re going to fix you. This was psychiatric doctrine at that time.” (Homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of disorders in 1973.)

“The environment in which I grew up was a fearful one. One forgets that going to a gay bar—which I did very little, I was too shy—was not only something socially frowned upon, it was a legal liability. Police would raid them. [The] Stonewall [Riots] was a result of one too many of those police persecutions.”

When Wuorinen began thinking about doing the project, a friend said of Brokeback’s lead characters, “Oh, it’s ridiculous. Why they don't they move to San Francisco?”

“That's a stupid thing to say,” he said. “For these guys, there is no beautiful horizon for them. I’m not sure if San Francisco or New York were such places in 1963. One has to remember the circumscribed nature of these guys. They are ranch hands. They have no sophistication whatsoever, and they discover this relationship by accident and have to construct their own world over a 20-year period, which they do with basically disastrous results.”

Young people today—up to age of 40, even 50—have no idea how strangulating the environment was in my youth.
Charles Wuorinen

The increased acceptance of LGBT people, legal, social, and otherwise, is “one of the few things in the modern era” Wuorinen approves of.

“Young people today—up to age of 40, even 50—have no idea how strangulating the environment was in my youth, and I didn’t come from a humble farming community. I came from a nice, respectable, academic one.” His father was a historian and professor at Columbia for 40 years.

“I never had any difficulty accepting who and what I am. This was conjoined with the fact that always from the single digits, I was and wanted to be a composer. My parents, being interested in my safety and success, were alarmed by this and didn’t want that. At all. I was rebellious in every way. I walked out of the house at the age of 18.”

All was not as it seemed. “I projected an air of confidence and rebelliousness which certainly masked the kinds of insecurities such behavior always does.”

In 1970, Wuorinen became, for a number of years, the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his piece Time’s Encomium.

In less liberated times, his personal relationships were conducted furtively. Having grown up in Morningside Heights, he moved to Christopher Street in the late 1950s, “long before the gay thing, when it was an Italian neighborhood.” (He apologized if “the passage of time and deterioration of the hippocampus means I may get some of these things wrong at this distance.”)

He said, ‘Well, we have to find out if this really is your behavior or is this a neurotic overlay. A ‘neurotic overlay’ has been one of my favorite expressions of scorn ever since.
Charles Wuorinen

I asked if he’d ever considered conversion therapy, or getting “cured.”

“No, no, no. My one brush with the psychoanalytic world took place when my parents began to suspect there might be something a little ‘wrong’ with me and sent me—I think I was a freshman at Columbia—to the university psychiatrist.

“I don’t know what language I used at the time, because the word ‘gay’ was not even current then. I said to him that I may be this thing. I still remember his response, which I thought was preposterous then and still do. He said, ‘Well, we have to find out if this really is your behavior or is this a neurotic overlay. A ‘neurotic overlay’ has been one of my favorite expressions of scorn ever since.”

Wuorinen thought at the time, though was too shy to say to the shrink: “If this is what you have to offer, you’re worthless.”

He never went back? “Of course not. Never.”

Wuorinen knew other gay people, with more fraught and cautious lives. “Everybody did. You had to. You’d lose your job, and maybe be subject to one kind of public ostracism or another. You have no idea. Nowadays, mommy and daddy may have been hoping for 27 grandchildren and be sad they’re not going to get them, but in those days there were real risks.”

Wuorinen is “fine” that some people may want to take the Brokeback Mountain opera as “a proclamation of gay rights,” even if for him the opera is a tragedy about not being able to accept one’s true nature, which destroys lives and leads to one character’s death and one living death.

Maybe I have what Stravinsky called ‘senile optimism.’ If two guys want to get together now, who cares?
Charles Wuorinen

Despite the Trump’s administration’s animus toward the LGBT community, Wuorinen feels “it’s too late” for real and lasting harm to be done to social progress. “Maybe I have what Stravinsky called ‘senile optimism.’ If two guys want to get together now, who cares?” (Many people and legislators do; Orange County Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher, for one.)

As Ennis says in Brokeback Mountain (and as Wuorinen himself notes): If he and Jack were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, they could wind up dead—which made Wuorinen think of gay student Mathew Shepard, brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1999.

“Annie and I spent a little bit of time in Wyoming,” said Wuorinen. “Annie lived there for 15 years once. When we were there I asked her, ‘Aren’t things a lot better now in Wyoming?’ And she really didn’t want to say so. She certainly seemed to believe there was plenty of that kind of attitude which we saw with Matthew Shepard.” (Through a representative, Proulx declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Next, Wuorinen is working on a ballet score “for some people in Los Angeles.” He has created 275 pieces to date, he said. “It makes me tired just thinking about them, so I try not to.”

Work, for him, is “perhaps compulsive, but I do it anyway. I’m habituated to it. It probably has to do with the fact I realized very early in life, from a very young age, that the whole world doesn't want you to compose and you therefore begin to adopt strategies to try to counteract that.”

He sounds disgusted by the idea of retirement. “No, I don’t intend to. I actually don’t understand why anyone retires. I suppose if you work at some job you hate, I can see why under those conditions you might want to retire. But the idea of moving to Florida and playing golf is utterly alien to me.”

Spirei will next direct a production of Verdi’s Aida in Germany, and after that Handel’s Rinaldo.

Opera is a completely contemporary medium of expression. It’s live, it speaks direct to the heart. It treats modern subjects pertinent to our culture, and it moves the art form forward.
Charles Wuorinen

For New York audiences coming to Brokeback, Spirei predicts many tears and ultimately a sense of shared heartbreak at Ennis and Jack’s missed opportunity for love. “Like all great operas, it leaves you in good tears,” Spirei said.

There should be more gay-themed operas, he added. “Opera is a completely contemporary medium of expression. It’s live, it speaks direct to the heart. It treats modern subjects pertinent to our culture, and it moves the art form forward.”

So, maybe next a gay-themed opera featuring an out, well-adjusted couple who stay alive and happy at the end?

“Absolutely. That would be nice,” said Spirei. “I’d love to direct it.”

Brokeback Mountain is at New York City Opera; May 31, June 2, 3, and 4. Book tickets here.