February 13, 2017

CIM Composition Faculty Turns Librettist for New Western Opera

Riders of the Purple Sage
"Kaibito Desert" A sample of the scenic design by Southwest landscape artist Ed Mell

Ever wonder how the words and lyrics work so perfectly together in an opera? Well, CIM composition faculty Steven Mark Kohn has the answer. He’s the librettist for the Arizona Opera’s February 25, 2017 premiere of Riders of the Purple Sage, a role that he initially “politely declined out of terror.”

It started in 2011 when Kohn’s good friend, composer Craig Bohmler approached him after he’d read the well-known western novel, Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey. Bohmler wanted to make the book an opera and thought Kohn would be just the person to write the words to complement his music.

Kohn had written two libretti previously and well as the lyrics for over 100 songs, so he wasn’t new to the art, however, it took some convincing. Once on board, they got to work. “It spilled out easily and we were both convinced that this piece had all the elements of a grand opera: two sets of lovers, the gunslinger, the corrupt churchmen, the strong female heroine, and a lot of issues that are still relevant today: guns in society, women's rights, abuse of power, religious fundamentalism, this piece had it all, not to mention some good visceral emotional content and lots of action,” says Kohn.

The process continued to flow naturally. “For this piece, the words came first, so the rhythmic scanning of the songs started with me,” explains Kohn. “Once Craig began composing, he would ask for changes to help the phrasing and balance and we would go back and forth, sculpting the final product.”

The Arizona Opera became interested in the project and allowed Kohn and Bohmler to have two workshops before making an official commission of the piece. From there, Ed Mell, a well-regarded painter of the American West, also joined as scenic designer.

“One of the most satisfying aspects of working on a piece like this is that it is so vast and has so many moments and moving parts, that you find yourself living inside of it for a long time,” says Kohn. “It becomes its own world that you constantly revisit and tweak. As a dramatist, I found my work got easier the better I got to know and understand the characters and their motivations. After a while, I was off of Grey's book, taking dictation from the characters as they seemed to know what they wanted to say. Now it's hard for me to say how much of the dialogue is from the novel and how much is from me.”

Now, almost six years from that initial conversation, Riders of the Purple Sage will premiere at the end of the month.

Watch a behind the scenes look at the making of the opera