Riders of the
text by Laura Schairer photos by Tim Trumble
After years of development, the world premiere of Riders of the Purple Sage, a new opera based on Zane Grey’s Western novel of the same name, will be unveiled by Arizona Opera.
AN IDEA TAKES SHAPE
The idea for an operatic version ofRiders of the Purple Sage came to composer Craig Bohmler after stumbling upon Zane Grey’s historic cabin and museum during a hiking trip in Northern Arizona. Bohmler subsequently read a copy of the classic novel, partnered with librettistSteven Mark Kohn, and shortly thereafter the pair presented their initial composition to Arizona Opera.
Following several workshops that captured the imagination of opera enthusiasts and prompted significant funding from arts patrons Billie Jo and Judd Herberger, Arizona Opera commissioned the creation of the new opera, Riders of the Purple Sage. Bohmler, who has composed numerous operas and musicals, developed a rich score, reminiscent of Hollywood westerns, with melodic themes to signal the central characters’ motivations and actions. The libretto by Steven Mark Kohn follows the main story line of the novel, set in the Utah territory circa 1870.
A FIRST FOR ARIZONA OPERA
This opera represents a major accomplishment for Arizona Opera: their first world premiere in the company’s 45-year history. “We couldn’t possibly be more excited about launching our first world premiere,” says Joseph Specter, president and general director of Arizona Opera. “The thrill of bringing a new opera to life is so energizing for our company.”
Being the first opera to focus on the American West, it’s fitting that this groundbreaking piece makes its debut in Arizona. Specter adds,“ A piece with the regional connection of Riders gives us the opportunity to speak so meaningfully with the community.”
Kristen Atwell Ford, who is both co-producing and filming a documentary of Riders, notes, “Whether you are a Zane Grey fan or an American history buff or you love Westerns and cinematic music or you love Ed Mell’s artwork, there are many ways to connect with this piece.”
Zane Grey [1872-1939] is the best-selling Western author of all time. His work shaped perceptions of the American West and cemented the archetypes and myths of the Western genre. Grey was famously prolific, publishing nearly ninety books in print – sixty of which are Westerns – in over twenty languages. His novels and short stories have been directly adapted into 112 films, and indirectly influenced many more genre films. Riders of the Purple Sage, published in 1912, is widely considered the first Western novel and remains Grey’s best-selling work.
Grey’s fondness for the Grand Canyon State – he frequently referred to it as “my beloved Arizona” – inspired the settings and characters of many of his novels and so it is fitting that Arizona will present the world premiere presentation of the opera based on his most popular novel.
AN ARTFUL TOUCH
Ed Mell joined the project as Scenic Designer in the spring of 2013. Known for his graphic style and striking desert landscapes, Mell is one of the most respected contemporary artists of Arizona. “The name Mell has become synonymous with the West, particularly the Southwestern landscape,” says Dr. Mark Sublette of Western Art Collector Magazine. “Mell is no longer just the name of an artist but an adjective, describing a particular feeling or moment; a Mell sunset. The name Mell automatically conjures up images of distant mesas with glowing red clouds in a variety of shapes in the minds of those who understand his genius in capturing Mother Nature’s most beautiful moments on canvas.”
In 2016, Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust funded state-of-the-art equipment to enable Arizona Opera’s creative team to develop the visual world for Riders. This equipment allows for stunning, high-resolution backdrops of Mell’s paintings to be combined with the hard scenic elements he designed. Some of these backdrops are in excess of 28 feet tall. As a result, Arizona Opera has produced an evocative, stunning environment in which the Riders of the Purple Sage story will unfold – set amidst Mell’s interpretation of Arizona’s striking mountains, vistas, canyons, and sunsets.