Raleigh Now Spotlight: NC Opera Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain
N.C. Opera brings the acclaimed story to life with music

by Jessie Ammons
photograph by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Soon after Cold Mountain was published, a real opera fan I know said, ‘There’s something operatic about this story,’” said the author Charles Frazier, speaking to Walter over the phone one recent morning. This month, Frazier is celebrating the 20th anniversary of Cold Mountain, his bestselling, National Book Award-winning novel. Also celebrating: the N.C. Opera, which has adapted the novel and will perform it on stage Sept. 28 – Oct. 1 at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill. Frazier says the production represents a significant homecoming: “I’m so pleased that this all worked out,” he says, “for it to be on stage in North Carolina, where the whole book takes place.”

Momentarily putting aside work on his next novel to discuss the production, Frazier considered his friend’s “operatic” observation. “I didn’t at all know what he meant,” Frazier said. “And I don’t know that I do now. He was seeing something that seemed compatible with opera in the story.” Librettist Gene Scheer and composer Jennifer Higdon knew what Frazier’s friend meant; they saw the same “something” about seven years ago, when they first began creating an opera based on the novel. Cold Mountain follows a wounded soldier along a treacherous and emotional journey from the battlefields of the Civil War back home to the love of his life in Cold Mountain, North Carolina.

Frazier wasn’t directly involved in the opera’s production, but he made himself available to its creators and was inspired, he says, by their vision. He says they helped him glimpse how his story was compatible with opera. “I learned something about telling a story…I’ve known a lot of artists over the years, and Jennifer Higdon is one of the purest artists.” Frazier says the opera rises to “the base challenge of how to squeeze a fairly lengthy novel into about two hours of performance.”

Stage director Keturah Stickann was part of the team that initially conceived of the show and produced its world premiere in Santa Fe in 2014. She was also part of its subsequent tour, and worked closely with librettist Scheer throughout the process. She says Cold Mountain the opera captures Cold Mountain the novel through carefully selected, intensely portrayed scenes. (The opera is also inspired by visual elements of Academy Award-winning Cold Mountain the film, starring Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, and Renee Zellweger.) “This is quite a complicated show on a lot of fronts,” Stickann says. “It’s about finding distillation, about finding the moments that are most important to storytelling. And still giving the essence of Charles Frazier’s story, while having a piece that moves and doesn’t meander.”

Stickann will direct the N.C. Opera production this month. She says the complexity of the story is what makes for a good opera, along with its universal themes. “On the one hand, it’s an incredible love story. … On the other hand, it’s a story about war, and it will appeal to those interested in the historical aspect. It is so varied and layered. The beautiful thing about Cold Mountain is that there is something in there that everybody will be able to either relate to or find interesting.”

That includes its author, who highly recommends the opera. “I felt like I learned something about my own book from watching it.”

Opera: Sept. 28, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 1, 2 p.m.; $25 – 99; Memorial Hall, 114 E. Cameron Ave., Chapel Hill; ncopera.org

Charles Frazier will read from Cold Mountain at Quail Ridge Books Sept. 7 at 7 p.m.