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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

‘Cold Mountain’ returns to North Carolina, in opera form

Higdon uses incomplete chords to symbolize Inman’s hollowness from the war and quietly strong melodies to show Ada’s growth as a woman.

Not long after Charles Frazier had written Cold Mountain, his publisher said something to the writer that he thought was a little odd.

“He’s a real opera guy,” Frazier recalled in a telephone interview from his home in Asheville, “and he told me, ‘This could make a very good opera.’”

Now, 20 years after the book’s original publication, Frazier’s story of two lovers separated by the Civil War is the first major opera to be entirely set in North Carolina. The Cold Mountain opera will make its North Carolina debut Sept. 28 and Oct. 1 at Memorial Hall, performed by the cast of the North Carolina Opera.

“I was so pleased when that worked out,” Frazier said of the Carolina Performing Arts performances. “It’s always been a priority for me that it be performed in North Carolina.” Frazier, a Carolina alumnus, will be here for the performance and for other related events (see box below).

The author said he is often asked if he has had “a say” in the making of the movie and opera adaptations of his work, which won the National Book Award and topped the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year.

“For a novelist, where you have a say is when you say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to letting them adapt your work,” Frazier said. “I’ve been lucky with the people who’ve wanted to work with Cold Mountain.”

When the 2003 movie version (starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger) was made, Frazier reviewed every major draft of the screenplay written by director Anthony Minghella. He also took Minghella on a weeklong car trip through North Carolina to give him a feel for the place.

“He has a great respect for writers and was really interested in my opinions,” Frazier said. The movie went on to receive seven Academy Award nominations, with Zellweger winning the Oscar for best supporting actress.

Arias and duets

Ruby (Cecelia Hall) and Ada (Isabel Leonard), at right, are visited by villainous Home Guard leader Teague (Jay Hunter Morris) and his young protégé, Birch (Andrew Farkas).

But a screenplay is very different from an opera score. “I wouldn’t have a clue in how to start writing an opera,” Frazier admitted. When he met the opera’s composer and librettist, “I got a really good feeling that I could trust my story to them. I help them when they need help, but it’s their project.”

Frazier found a true kindred spirit in composer Jennifer Higdon, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music. “She grew up in east Tennessee, as the crow flies, about 50 or 60 miles from Cold Mountain,” he said. Higdon was the one who approached Frazier about making Cold Mountain into her first opera.

At first, Frazier was a little concerned about how his unconventional love story could be told as an opera. The 400-page novel alternates scenes from Ada’s struggle to maintain her farm on Cold Mountain and the Odyssey-like journey of her lover, Inman, who deserts from the Confederate Army to return to her.

“For half the book, the guy’s walking,” Frazier told librettist Gene Scheer.

“My last project was Moby Dick. We’ll figure it out,” Scheer reassured him.

Higdon and Scheer began by focusing on critical scenes when the characters are forced to make choices, 23 in all. Will the cultured Ada accept the help she needs from the practical Ruby? Will Inman be able to prevent the murder of a pregnant woman?

Their outline produced a relatively compact 2½-hour opera. Higdon uses incomplete chords to symbolize Inman’s hollowness from the war, hissing and rattling percussion to signal the villainous Teague and quietly strong melodies to show Ada’s growth as a woman. She also incorporates the mountain music of fiddle tunes, bluegrass and shape note singing in the piece.

Book to stage

In the Opera Philadelphia performance of Cold Mountain, Confederate deserter W.P. Inman (Jarrett Ott) sings of his journey back to his sweetheart, Ada (Isabel Leonard).

While the opera was in development, Frazier participated in a workshop and a preview at which the singers performed in street clothes, with stands to hold their musical scores. It wasn’t until the premiere of the opera in Santa Fe that he got to see the complete production.

“The visual element of it is fairly overwhelming,” he said.

“After 25 years with these characters, to see the story there on the stage, in the world, was quite an experience. It taught me some things about my book and gave me a different sense of the characters.”

Frazier was also intrigued by techniques such as using a backdrop of the phases of the moon to indicate the passage of a month on Inman’s long walk. Different parts of the stage represent Cold Mountain and wherever Inman is in his journey. “There’s a lot going on a lot of the time to account for the distance and those things that separate Ada and Inman.”

But beyond the sets, lights and costumes, “the music is the center of it,” Frazier said of the opera.

Music was also crucial to the movie version of Cold Mountain. For the soundtrack, music producer T Bone Burnett brought together authentic old-time mountain music and shape note singing with new songs in the same spirit written by Sting and Elvis Costello. The latter were both nominated for Academy Awards, and the album was nominated for two Grammy Awards. (Frazier and Burnett will talk about their collaboration as part of the week’s events. See box above.)

Maybe that’s because Frazier imbued the story with music as he wrote. Whenever he sat down to write his story, Frazier said, “Music was just a constant every day. I would always have some of that old authentic stuff playing.”

Listening to “a substantial collection of old-time fiddle music” was Frazier’s time machine to travel back to the era of the great-great uncle who inspired his story. Now, with the creation of this opera, the music of the past has come full circle.