It is a tale that has pushed the boundaries of print and film. Now, Brokeback Mountain, the tragic love story of two American cowboys, is looking to again chart new territory.
Next week will see the world premiere of the opera version of Brokeback Mountain at Madrid's Teatro Real. The production is based on the 1997 short story by Annie Proulx, which also inspired the 2005 Oscar-winning film.
After reading Proulx's tale of doomed lovers, composer Charles Wuorinen knew he had the makings of a tragic opera. "In older operas, there would be an illegitimate child or difference of social classes," said Wuorinen. "Same-sex love, especially when it takes place in an environment where it's absolutely forbidden, is a contemporary version of the same eternal problem."
The Pulitzer-prize winning American composer approached Proulx in 2007 to ask for her blessing to adapt the story for opera. Proulx went one step further, offering to write the libretto.
The result is a production that brings to life the Proulx version of the story, with an emphasis on the rugged Wyoming landscape. The cinematography of the Ang Lee-directed film, while beautiful, failed to capture the true nature of the landscape, said Wuorinen. "The landscape is meant to be magnificent and impressive, but also very harsh and very dangerous," he said.
The movie was set against the backdrop of the Canadian Rockies. For the opera, the crew filmed the Wyoming mountains that inspired the story. A video will project images behind the production, allowing the opera to play out in the shadow of the mountains. "That paradoxical freight that the mountain carries," said Wuorinen, "physically, that idea is in the background."
Stage director Ivo van Hove brushed off any comparison with the movie. "This is not an adaptation of a movie on stage," he said. "The women are much more explored, and the society around them is much more important."
And the opera finishes with an aria by the main character, Ennis. "He sings out his love. It's a really big moment in the opera," Van Hove said.
While the LGBT movement has advanced tremendously since Proulx first published Brokeback Mountain more than 15 years ago, Van Hove hopes the opera continues the tale's tradition of pushing the boundaries. "I live and work in Amsterdam. Over the last few years more and more gay people have been beaten up in the streets," Van Hove said. "It's not only in Russia, it's not only in India."
The production, which opens next Tuesday, was commissioned by Gerard Mortier in 2008 while at the New York City Opera. Two years later, when Mortier took up his new post as the general director of the Teatro Real, he brought the project with him.