Leaving the Mountain
By Jerry Portwood
Illustration by Marcos Chin
Annie Proulx is leaving Wyoming. The author of “Brokeback Mountain,” a short story about Wyoming sheep herders Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, who harbor a secret passion for one another, is packing up her belongings and heading farther west, to Seattle. Though she leaves behind the landscape that inspired a phenomenon — not just her original story, but the powerful movie and generational touchstone it spawned — “Brokeback Mountain” continues to find new forms: Brokeback Mountain the opera, a collaboration between Proulx and renowned composer Charles Wuorinen, is set to premiere at Madrid’s Teatro Real in late January.
In his cozy Upper West Side townhouse, where he lives with his husband and manager, Howard Stokar, and two beloved cats, Wuorinen recalls his trip to Wyoming to collaborate with Proulx.
“The Wyoming landscape is beautiful, very compelling and magnificent,” he says. “But it’s deadly. It’s one of the things that bothered me about the film: You have all that lovely, shiny cinematography, but the landscape doesn’t make sense. It’s hostile. People are dying all the time.”
It’s this detail — the harshness of the landscape — he’s intent on incorporating into the opera, something he understood after a summer visit that began in the Big Horn Mountains and ended at Proulx’s remote Bird Cloud Ranch near Laramie. Wuorinen, 75, and the 78-year-old Proulx forged a close friendship as he turned “shrimp-pink,” Proulx recalls, under the September sun of Medicine Bow Peak. He beams when he recalls seeing his first double rainbow and the eagles that circled the great cliff on her land. “She’s intrepid,” he remembers, describing a mad dash with Proulx through the mountains in her truck. “She likes the isolation, but it can be dangerous, and now she needs a city.”
It was Wuorinen who pursued the idea of adapting “Brokeback” into an opera after he saw the movie in 2006. “I thought it was operatic material,” he says as Stokar prepares tea in their kitchen, chiming in with memories of the collaboration. The two men share an easy domestic ease and married last year after living together for more than 25. To many music devotees, however, Wuorinen’s the last person anyone expected to compose a gay love story for the stage. He’s aware of his irascible reputation. “Did you look up ‘thorny’ and ‘angular’?” he asks, bristling at the idea that he or his work is difficult. “If you do a search, those words come up about 600 times. What does it mean?” I promise him I won’t use the words.
It was his fierce dedication to the material over the past three years, however, that helped shape the tragic love story into the finished product, which includes a ghost (named Hogboy) who reveals things to Jack’s wife, along with a chorus of “furies” who taunt Ennis for being “funny.” Although some fans have interpreted the story in a more sentimental vein, finding it difficult to reconcile the ending with their own notions of love — even writing alternate happy endings — the opera still ends with Ennis, alone, regretting that he couldn’t express his feelings to Jack before he died, only saying, “Jack, I swear…” So Proulx wrote a monologue to help audiences understand what he meant by those three words. “The opera allows him to say what he has come to learn about himself and the relationship,” she says, “and why for him there cannot be another Jack.”
Wuorinen is surprised by how rapidly social attitudes toward gay men loving and marrying have changed since he began the project and wonders how people will respond to the Brokeback Mountain opera’s tragic story. “I’m almost worried that now that my opera is becoming so old-fashioned that it’s not of interest anymore,” he admits. “But I never undertook it in the service of some cause, so I have to hope the work carries it through.”
This duo of ornery creative geniuses, careful not to allow sentimentality to color the work, may be the perfect combination. Proulx says she’s enjoyed the way the story has been accepted by a worldwide audience: “I was surprised to watch its relatively incandescent trajectory.”
But she’s quick to clarify that she never wrote a sentimental story. “It is a story about rural regional homophobia...in a situation that needlessly ends in tragedy. It is only a romantic story if you think the inability to conquer fear and self-loathing are romantic.”
Brokeback Mountain premieres Jan. 28 at Madrid's Teatro Real