‘Cold Mountain’ gets its East Coast opera premiere in Philly

Isabel Leonard and Nathan Gunn as Ada and Inman in the Santa Fe production of 'Cold Mountain.' Photo by Ken Howard.

A must-read will become a must-see-and-hear at the Academy of Music February 5-14, when Cold Mountain, composer Jennifer Higdon’s opera based on Charles Frazier’s award-winning Civil War novel, has its East Coast premiere. The world premiere was at the Santa Fe Opera in August 2015 (here’s the BSR review of that production).

This is Higdon’s first opera, although she is world-renowned for her instrumental works and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for her Violin Concerto. She has lived for years in Philadelphia, where she teaches at Curtis Institute, but like author Frazier, grew up in the South, which created a bond with him, and she promised to “take care of his characters.” (Cold Mountain is the Free Library’s 2016 pick for its One Book, One Philadelphia program.)

In the music, that means Inman, a deserting Confederate soldier damaged both physically and emotionally, gets “chords with the middle missing, because he’s hollow inside.” She describes Ruby as a go-getter, high-speed, always working on “how to make a good meal, crop, shelter — so her music is faster.” She says that composing opera is “like writing in Technicolor,” while instrumental writing is “black and white.”

A team of established and rising opera stars

The challenge of transforming a widely read book into an opera libretto was taken up by Gene Scheer, whose libretti include the highly-acclaimed Moby-Dick for composer Jake Heggie. Despite his experience, Scheer admits to qualms, such as how to convey “the power of Charles’s beautiful language.” With Moby-Dick, of course, Melville couldn’t call or email with opinions. But the author and librettist worked well together: Frazier recounts that when Scheer suggested changes, he replied, “I wish I’d thought of that!”

Inman, trudging to his adored Ada, was originally portrayed by the outstanding baritone Nathan Gunn in the world premiere. Unfortunately, a serious family illness forced him to cancel his planned Philly performances only ten days before opening night. Luckily, Curtis grad Jarrett Ott, who has taken over, is an exceptionally talented young singer and actor. And he knows Cold Mountain cold, having sung in workshops in 2012 and 2013, and as Gunn’s cover in Santa Fe and here.

Mezzo and Met regular Isabel Leonard (Ada), making her Opera Philadelphia debut, and tenor Jay Hunter Morris (Teague, cruel leader of the Home Guard) were in the original production; mezzo Cecelia Hall is the new Ruby, the energetic mountain woman who helps Ada survive (and vice versa).

Page to opera stage

Morris, whose next assignments are Siegfried and Tristan, has now done eight major roles in new operas. His favorite so far was Moby-Dick with the “brilliant” Gene Scheer’s libretto and music that “touches me right from the overture.”

Cold Mountain is similar: “I love the story; I read the book when it came out, so I jumped at the chance of the opera,” Morris says. “There’s something about being the bad guy. Jennifer set Teague perfectly with a surface of charm that makes his propensity to do violence more shocking, and it’s very singable — but not easy.”

Hall brings to Ruby the lively personality of her 2014 Opera Philadelphia Zerlina in Don Giovanni. She read the book in her North Carolina high school and again more recently. She’s thrilled that “so much of the book-Ruby is in the opera-Ruby.” She describes Ruby as “down-to-earth, of the earth: She trusts the land more than she trusts any human. I love her first-act aria, saying her only teacher was hunger. Then she and Ada teach each other. . .and find common ground.”

Cold Mountain is coming to the Academy of Music at Broad and Locust Streets, Philadelphia, on February 5, 7, 10, 12, and 14. For tickets and more information, call 215-893-1018 or visit online

At right: Deborah Nansteel as Lucinda and Nathan Gunn as Inman in the 2015 Santa Fe Opera production. Photo by Ken Howard.