Opera Philadelphia

Q&A with Composer Jennifer Higdon

By Opera Philadelphia

Cold Mountain composer Jennifer Higdon speaks with Diana Burgwyn about her experience writing her first opera.

Q: Though Cold Mountain had its world premiere in Santa Fe, its ties to Philadelphia are strong. Could you talk about that?

Cold Mountain was really born in Philadelphia. I wrote all of it here. And it took over my life for two years. It was pretty obvious; everyone could tell I was distracted. The characters drove me crazy, living with me 24 hours a day, every day. They were present in my head wherever I was−on the street, at the supermarket, in my dreams. Sometimes I thought, how do you keep from going mad? But when it was done I felt kind of bereft. I saw this imaginary room in my head, and Ada [the leading female role] walked out and closed the door. Then there was silence−a very loud silence. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Q: What were the toughest parts of composing the opera?

It was totally heartbreaking to deal with the death of Inman [a Civil War soldier, the main character]. I mean, I’d spent two years trying to keep him alive and now I was going to kill him? I had to work up the strength to do that scene. I’d be weeping over the manuscript paper just trying to get it out. Teague [a member of the local militia and a sadist] was something else. I couldn’t stand him. I had to chew a lot of gum when I was writing his music because it settled my stomach!

Jennifer Higdon at the 2013 Cold Mountain workshop Credit: Karli Cadel

Q: The opera had a strong connection with The Curtis Institute of Music where you teach, right?

Yes. It was workshopped at Curtis with 12 students taking on the different roles. We rehearsed Act I for a week in 2012, and I asked them lots of questions about how the music sat for the voice and what was awkward to sing or needed adjustment. So they were teaching me, which was fascinating. Act II went a bit easier, and that was workshopped at Curtis a year later.

Q: Can you describe your relationship with the author of the book?

When I first met Charles I was really nervous. I was thinking, I’m responsible for his characters, and he doesn’t know me or anything about opera−he grew up listening to southern rock basically. But he was so supportive. Before I left him and his wife, I said, “I promise to take care of Inman and Ada. I’ll do them justice.” And he really did like the opera. At the end of the premiere I went backstage and he was so moved he was in tears. 

Q: What about the librettist, Gene Scheer?

Frazier’s book is huge, and I’d made the decision that the whole opera had to come in at two-and-one-half hours, so we had to decide what points in the story would make a good opera. Gene and I met at the Starbucks at 10th and Chestnut one day back in 2010 and we pulled out the parts that we each felt were relevant. We mapped it all out in an hour, though I had thought it would take weeks. We were like minds. So I knew right away that he was the guy for the project.

Credit: Sarah Bloom

Q: You had considered a number of literary sources for your first opera before you came upon Charles Frazier’s National Book Award-winning novel Cold Mountain. Was it a natural fit for you?

It was. Finding the story took years, and getting the rights to turn it into an opera was extremely difficult, but after reading the first few pages of the novel, I knew this was the book. It just felt right. And since I grew up right in that area of North Carolina, I was very familiar not only with the music but with how different strata of people speak in the south. Gene is a New Yorker and he’s Jewish, and some of the conversation, like the use of double negatives, wasn’t familiar to him, so I would adjust his language to fit with each of the characters.

Q: How would you describe the music?

I’ve heard people define the music as neo-romantic, but for me it just sounds southern. It’s different from a lot of the music I’ve written−it’s more in the category of my bluegrass concerto. When someone asks me about it, I say, “It has tunes; you’ll know what’s going on.” And it’s singable though it’s not easy to learn, because my rhythms tend to be kind of quirky and complex.

Q: Did you use original folk music from the area in the opera?

I debated that. For instance, there is a church scene in the opera with a fiddling tune, and I had to decide whether to use a standard tune like some of the ones Charles Frazier references in the book. But I decided to compose my own in that style, and I alternated rhythms that you’d not find in the original tunes, so that gave it a little more interest.

Q: The choruses in the opera seem to have really touched audiences. What do you think makes them so powerful?

The story is so moving, and that was what inspired the choruses. The sheer pain and love and agony of those shared moments just needed that music. It’s that simple, and it’s what came out. I honestly don’t know where it came from. I actually feel it was channeled through me.

Q: You were best known as an orchestra composer before composing this opera. How did you approach the orchestral writing in Cold Mountain?

I had studied a lot of operas over a five-year period, especially those by Benjamin Britten, because I figured his musical language was the closest to mine. My own experience in writing for orchestra definitely helped me with color. People seem stunned by the colors in the orchestral music and tell me they’ve never heard music like this in an opera. One surprising thing was that when we were rehearsing in Santa Fe, we found that we could always hear the singers, but there were spots where you had trouble hearing the orchestra. It’s usually the opposite. I guess I was overcompensating. So I made small changes as we went.

Q: How did the opening go?

It was wild. All the tickets were sold, the librettos, everything in the store. People were trying to scalp tickets and doing everything they could to get back for a second and third hearing. They added chairs and sold folding chairs. There was standing room. It was the first time in Santa Fe that they were entirely sold out.

Q: What’s the next opera going to be?

First I have to recover from this one!


The East Coast Premiere of Cold Mountain runs from February 5–14 at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. 


Diana Burgwyn is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia

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