Enfoque: In less-real focus

I attended the pre-premiere event host by the music dramaturg, Jan Vandenhouwe, with the four creative artists of Brokeback Mountain. Other than a dozen of younger people, the audience was made up mostly of white Spanish women above 40 years-old (though the men were the ones who spoke during the Q&A). The usual questions on inspirations, techniques and other aspects of the creative process were fielded. From their respective perspectives coming from the United States of America and the European Union, the following points are what I have found to be most significant.

Proulx wants her story to reveal another side of the human-animal, which is also interested in different kinds of sex. She states that the homosexual character can also be homophobic himself. This interpretation ties in with how Wuorinen has perceived the story to bear an internal problem, very much like a traditional operatic tragedy [he was thinking of Don Giovanni, Othello, Moses und Aron, Wozzeck and The Rake’s Progress]. However, Wuorinen was quick to disclaim that, except for certain expressive moments, his opera does not contain what is conventionally known as arias.

For the musical director, Titus Engel, Wuorinen’s music does not belong to the countryside as has often been typecast in filmic soundtracks. Instead, the frequent changes in musical affects readily represent the harsh weather and windiness of the mountainous landscape. No wonder Proulx and Wuorinen felt that the opera reflects danger in its texts and the contexts (with Proulx thinking that the work has ‘claws’). Engel thinks that the opera resonates with the contemporary socio-political problems occurring not only in Wyoming, but also in Russia, Africa and other parts of the world.

Last but not least, the stage director, Ivo van Hove, believes that Brokeback Mountain is a universal story of love, desire and ‘sexual hunger’. He was worried that putting cowboys on stage could be cliché and kitsch, as is the case with breeches role in traditional theatre. However, the creative collaboration with the actors during the rehearsals showed the characters to be multi-layered. Similarly, his scenography divides the two musical acts into three settings – the mountains, the domestic homes and hotel rooms, and a black space after the death of Jack – the last of which representing the bare poverty of the Twist family home as well as the ‘less-real poetics’ of love unrequitable.

The tragicomedy of four fathers

There are four fathers in this opera: Jack, Ennis, Jack’s father and Lureen’s father. Jack has a boy called Bobby, and Ennis has two girls called Alma Junior and Francine. Ennis carries her baby daughter and sings to her while she is asleep. He tells Jack that he ‘loves them to pieces’. However, he was readily willing to give up custody of the children after the divorce. The next time he sees the children was at the thanksgiving dinner, but he showed up late and became violent in front of the kids. On the other hand, Jack’s relationship with his son is more subtle. Jack is more willing to give up his wife and son to be with Ennis on the ranch, or to seek sexual relief in Mexico.

Both the fathers of Jack and Lureen have been portrayed as disabled or sickly, resulting in comedic effects for both the text and the music. Jack’s father walks with two walking sticks and sings in a jeering, dismissive tone, even once mimicking Jack’s high tenor tessitura with a nasal voice. He acts as the master of the family, interrupting the dialogue between his wife and Ennis both physically and musically. His musical style is as grumpy as Peter’s grandfather in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Finally, Lureen’s father is almost chauvinist and overly protective of his daughter. He coughs from smoking too much and sings in a hoarse voice. (The casting of the same performer for Aguirre and Lureen’s father might lead some audiences to think Jack has married Aguirre’s daughter.)

Two women in Feminist history

The opera set between the 1960s and 1980s during the women’s liberation movement has substantially represented women’s feelings and worth. Even the stage director told the press that ‘the women are much more explored’ in his rendition of the story than the film version. Alma and Lureen are the spouses of the two protagonists. Alma is portrayed as having an ‘American dream’ wanting to get out of the ranch and ranchwork, while Lureen has already completed her college education and does the finances at the family’s automobile shop. We know, from a young age, Alma is defiant against her mother’s wishes to work within the ranch, where she complains that only the boys get the inheritance.

She also fends for herself when Ennis refuses to take on a uniformed job by deciding on a divorce from Ennis. With her two daughters, she moves to live with a more reliable guy, Bill Jones the grocer. From this switch, we can sense her capitalist leanings to be an urban-bourgeois as opposed to being contented as a rural-proletarian. She continues to play her role as a wife and mother doing the housechores, but also works part-time at the shop. When she discovers the extra-marital homosexual affair of her husband, she does not wallow in self-pity, but rolls up her sleeves to investigate. The coloratura music for Alma is agile and feisty.

On the other hand, Lureen is more career-oriented and dependent. She sings in the lower mezzo-soprano voice range and is still reliant on her daddy even after his passing. She engages in a discussion with her daddy over her choice of husband as well as conjures her daddy’s apparition in a dream. She feels neglected by Jack’s lukewarm demeanour, but is not aware of her husband’s extra-marital affairs. She seems to be at a loss after the murder of her husband and does not even visit her in-laws up in Wyoming. In contrast to Alma’s resilience, Lureen is very much a supporting role subservient to the three men. One could even hear her resignation in the phone conversation with Ennis at the end of the opera.

An American or European sound?

I finally get to hear the voices combined with the orchestra and the full Brokeback sound-world has been revealed to some of us. This is of course the creation of the composer Charles Wuorinen. A little background: Wuorinen lives in New York City and was trained under Babbitt, whose music sounds Schoenbergian and Boulezian. You can find out more about Wuorinen’s musical style on the internet, but I am more interested to situate the operatic and orchestral sound as stemming from an American or European tradition. Someone said he heard some Porgy and Bess in the opera, but I think an obvious place to start would be the sound-world of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.

With the increased use of sprechgesang and percussion instruments, the music sounds pointillist and tense. There are few sounds of luscious string tuttis or majestic brass chorales, which are characteristic of the British and German styles; there are few melodies on solo woodwind or neoclassical sequences that reminds us of French or Italian music. What I heard was an industrial sound-world of the urban cityscape. I could discern the klangfarbenmelodie and the fin-de-siècle filmic sound-effects within the opera score. The music is mostly syllabic and rhythmic, though not pulsating in the style of Stravinsky.

Within the voice parts, there are also a few solos, duets and trios, though not anything elongated. There is definitely less of the Wagnerian romanticism or Verdian bel canto. A tradition closer to Brokeback’s could be the Italian verismo that is associated with the social realism of everyday life. Lots of dialogues intersperse the music and these are often sung as if spoken, with rare appearances of ‘motif’ here and there. The ensemble writing seems to pit the voices against the orchestral accompaniment whereas, when the instruments are heard by themselves, they often serve as narratological devices facilitating the scene changes. In conclusion, what we have is a very United States urban-city sound supporting the socio-political
(Democrat) agenda of contemporary American opera.

Language and Time

I have been sitting in rehearsals for almost 10 days now. One other thing that had a strong effect on me and my mental capacity is the multi-lingual environment within which the opera world circulates. Here at Teatro Real, the production team speaks Spanish (though the repetiteurs are Italian and British), the creative team speaks Flemish, and the opera singers coming mostly from North America speak English. The conductors – Swiss and Basque – and a few others speak in German. So occasionally information gets understood and not understood with these different languages switching from one to another.

Unlike other art form, opera and its making stem from a multi-lingual tradition. Take Mozart for example who spoke an Austrian-German dialect, but wrote operas with Italian libretti. Likewise with his compatriot Christoph Gluck, who wrote operas with French libretti. These days, we have European and Asian composers writing operas in English. Needless to say, operatic singers from all over the world are singing in German, French, Italian and English. However, what goes on backstage is the legibility and ability of multi-lingual communication for the most polyglot of operatic participants, creative or otherwise. With the little investments each country is putting in to nurture creative talents, the production of operas these days are returning to multi-national format of the travelling troupe, similar to the earlier colonial voyages of the English operettas or Malay bangsawans.

With the additional translation of ideas into languages, time becomes a major factor in opera production. For example, the press conference with Sellars and Viola was almost two hours long, due to the translation from English to Castellano. A few people at the rehearsals also told me that things were running rather too slowly for them. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, many people seemed to be waiting for their turn. On the other hand, the music can also have its own time durations, as does its aural consumption. As an analogy of perspective, a Harry Potter film can appear quite short, while a Samuel Beckett play can seem rather long. I supposed the working practices, creative and linguistic abilities of the different teams mentioned above are critical in the general time management. In short, the polyglot triumphs.

The first opera on homophobia

Perhaps Ang Lee got it wrong by putting all the focus on the protagonists. When the chorus came into rehearsals for the first time over the past two days, a new interpretation was explained to them, that they were in fact the real reason such a story could be told. They have been included in this operatic rendition as the townspeople who dislike, or even hate, men who love men. Like a disaster film from Hollywood, they are supposed to be the disease that pervades into the happy lives of innocent victims. They are the tornados, the alien invaders, the snakes and sharks that leech away the happiness of lovers, both straight and gay, and killing them.

There will be no celebrations or congratulatory notes in this opera. Despite being set between 1963 and 1983, the story remains contemporary with its tone of fear and condemnation. No one is good enough, not the husbands, not the wives. Even their parents feel inadequate. Brokeback Mountain is not a tragedy but a dystopic reality of everyday life. The parents wait for their child, the wives wait for their husbands, and the men wait for each other, all in the name of love. But, like Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’, it is death that makes one realised the precariousness of love.

The homophobes lurk everyday on the stage and are unhesitant to scorn and sneer, whereas the characters stand in solitude in the kitchen, shop, or bedroom. Unlike the ubiquity of murderous incitations embodied by the chorus, these are rooms not of one’s own, but of others’. Between the tent and ranch, the motel and mountain sits this terror known as homophobia. Interestingly, the motif of homophobia is also consolidated within a single actor in three different guises: the boss, the father-in-law and his posthumous apparition. It does not matter whether audiences can distinguish which character is he playing, because these are mere metonymies of homophobia, contracting and expanding so much so that the entire chorus echoes at his beck and call. They metamorphosed into Thanatos, the bringer of death and grief. This opera is not about homosexuality, it is about homophobia.

Wagner, Sellars and Viola

I managed to attend a couple of sessions – In Focus and Press Conference – with the creative team behind Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in Madrid. The panel consists of Gerard Mortier, the artistic director, Peter Sellars, the scene director, Bill Viola, the video director, and Kira Perov, the video production executive. Lots of things were said, and I am sure if you read the Spanish and international newspapers, you will have bits and pieces of information in the media. Examples include interviews and reviews from El Pais or La Razon.

Instead of talking about the contents of the two presentations, I want to focus on the format of knowledge redistribution. The chairs and tables were set with name labels, microphones, glasses, and mineral water. One formal difference was the use of sofas for the public talk, while a long table was used for the press conference. What was almost the same for both presentations were the dress and contents of Sellars’s and Viola’s presentations. Quite strategically, what Sellars said was almost a paraphrase of what has been mentioned in his self-written programme notes on how he perceived the opera. For both Sellars and Violas, there was less or even no mention of the creative or productive processes behind the staging in Madrid or how it differs from those in Paris and Toronto.

Instead, it was Perov, who informed the audiences on the use of two additional pair of actors, one from theatre and one from the cirque du soleil. Perov also quipped us with the budget and efficacy of working at night and with fire and water. Perhaps there are certain technicalities or tricks of the trade that neither Sellars nor Viola feels appropriate for the ‘target’ audience. The selection of information qua knowledge becomes a form of discrimination, which is of course something that we all do all the time consciously or unconsciously, that is telling different people different aspects about the same thing. Precisely that opera has become a total work of art, or what Wagner calls the Gesamtkunstwerk, that our compartmentalization of work and our roles within the arts results in us knowing too little about or refusing to acquaint with each other’s media.

Rodeo and Ranch: gay or bisexual?

Finally, I have found time to talk about the issue of labelling Brokeback Mountain as a gay opera, or gay film, or gay story. To do so is to be blinded by the other kinships and events within the narrative. There are wives and parents and a whole society weighing in on the turn of events. Throughout the rehearsals, we see Jack and Ennis in the roles of spouse, father, son, worker, man, and human. To the extent that one can get killed in Brokeback for loving a person of the same gender, the two protagonists are struggling not only with their own sexual orientation, but also for the chance to be with each other openly.

If they also love their wives and children, then this sexual behaviour clearly makes them bisexual. So this story is as much about polyamory as it is about personal transcendence. Ok, fine, there are the gay kiss and the gay sex (I know most of us have been brainwashed to enjoy watching nudity and intimacy from Alain Resnais to Robin Thicke). But these are merely a few seconds of the two-hour long opera (without intermission, mind you). I think one of the major challenge for the creators and the cast is to contextualise the particular into the general, a task that both Proulx and Wuorinen themselves has found to be intrinsic to the creative process. Instead of revolving the entire story around the moments of queerness, another way of understanding such socio-cultural representation is to embrace the linear trajectory, allowing events to unfold by themselves (that is also to follow Carolyn Abbate’s hermeneutics of the ‘drastic’ against the ‘gnostic’).

Likewise, the affects and the music appear to be built on a developmental structure, as opposed to a centrifugal one. The libretto itself is based largely on dialogues with few soliloquy or recollection. On the one hand, such a format may appear too ‘talkative’ and working ‘against’ the music; on the other hand, the words and music have been fairly balanced, so much so that the performers often have to act out their lines without singing during the rehearsals in order to get into the story. Because each scene has its own emotional arch, and not just any brainless gay/straight fornification, the audiences will be pulled immensely into the tension of the plot. This new work will stand out within operatic history not only for its contemporary relevance, but also for its characteristic similarities to a modern day ‘soap opera’ with its melodramatic elements. Drawing from personal experiences, I believe this piece of musical theatre truly juxtaposes our everyday life with the gesamtkunstwerk.


After 3 days of rehearsals, the common theme surrounding the main characters is self-esteem, or a lack thereof. Already from the original story, we see how the husbands and wives struggle with their own personal aspirations and familial obligations. Numerous issues throw themselves forth at whichever angle one stands. Alma appears to wish for the American Dream of being prosperous, sending her children to university and seeing a different world than just the kitchen and bedroom.

Jack wants a liberated life, venturing in the grand American wildness. He is a guy know for his ‘anything goes’ attitude, sacrificing diverse love for social reputation. These are two very similar characters who share the foresight of an optimistic future. Ennis, on the other hand, strives in the dilemma, wanting his cake and eating it as well. He has a low self-esteem and constantly broods over which path to take. Eventually, if we perceive the entire opera as a whole, you will sense the transformation of the characters at the end, opening up, closing in, letting go.

Acting out these complicated relationships adds immense challenges to the singers-actors. Between the words and the actions are the ineffable affiliation and tension. This is the push and the pull the cast and crew are feeling during the rehearsal process. There is no bad idea, just better ways of putting the story across to the audiences and listeners. To stand or to sit, to touch or to turn away: I wonder if these gestures are learned or innate to human behaviour. How can the actors portray their character’s self-esteem, or lack thereof, from the rhetoric of the operatic act?

The Double Lives of Opera Singers

Opera singers are like concert soloists or business executives. At least the better(-known) ones are really globetrotting. It’s true that the opera world is really situated in North America and Western Europe, but certain cultural differences can be discerned. One being the timing of sleeping and eating. Why are rehearsals held in the afternoon and performances in the evening? Because the Spanish and French have their meals at 9 or 10pm, does it mean dinner comes after the show, unlike in the UK where pre-theatre meals are mostly the norm?

Two, opera singers are just ordinary. Like actors, they have an onstage presence and an offstage absence. They think about kids, doing chores, maintaining a diet and figure, and listen to pop and read trivia. From my brief interaction with them, it’s really anything goes. Just like characters on stage, all sort of personalities can be opera singers. So we can even venture a multiple lives of opera singers: the real, the virtual, the performative and the private. There will always be an edge that is not revealed to no one, so don’t bother probing.

Otherwise, the opera singing is really a psychological oscillation between passion and profession. Not all musicians are actors and not all actors are musicians. I see this clear distinction between theatre directors and musical directors, while opera singers are a breed in their own league. They think, they do, and they live. The recent turn within academia towards the ‘performer’s voice’ might have left out this group of artists, but the truth is, opera singers are also refusing to become theorized and taxonomized.

Opinions (in)expressible

So I have been sitting in rehearsals for two days now and I have observed how some people have opinions and others do not. What I mean by ‘have’ refers to those opinions which have been conveyed to the actors and eventually the audiences. What I see is that only the opinions of the two actors and two directors count towards the scene, while the other 15 or so people in the room merely watch and stand by to perform the task they have been assigned to do: conductor, repetiteur, non-singing actors, producer, stage managers, set director, set managers, costume director, stagehands etc.

In comparison to an orchestral rehearsal where the conductor is (mostly) the only one who gives instruction for the orchestral musicians to follow, the theatre director works with the assistant director and dramaturg to interpret the script with spontaneous input from the actors. We can perceive these two forms as an authoritarian style of management versus the oligarchy style of creative production respectively. Why oligarch? Because there are many people in the room who are watching the actors and directors vex over the libretto. Some have opinions, some do not. For those with opinions, some shared it with others, some did not.

Many a time, numerous people were using their mobile phones to email, surf the internet or play games. This is not to say that they were not doing their parts in the economy of opinions and creative production. Two ways of interpreting this distribution could be that the tasks have been highly specialised for someone to direct the actors and another to open the doors, or the schema provides jobs for everyone, generating the state GDP and passing on the cost increments onto the consumers via ticket prices etc. This reminds me of some school productions where few people did almost everything, for example, having the actors themselves advertising the show and arranging the sets. Well, these are just some initial observations and opinions coming from an outsider.

Musical styles

I started asking the conductor and repetiteurs what style do they see in Wuorinen’s score. Various answers came forth: Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Sprechstimme, Sprechgesang. There also appears an inclination towards verismo and going against the neo-Romanticism of Copland and Barber. As much as the sets were inspired by the paintings of American artist Edward Hopper, there is a strong tendency for the musical line to follow everyday speech articulations, even when sung. Some of the music reminds us of a whole range of music from Monteverdi’s triple-meter ariosos to Alan Menken’s A Whole New World.

Also, the music is so through-composed that I felt the barlines were merely serving the purpose of keeping everyone in time, and the poor conductor was merely beating time. Seldom do we find some form of recurring section or musical development, at least on the first hearing. That said, this must be the true beauty of opera with the music supporting and enhancing the narrative and vice versa. I was earlier alluding to the irregular pulses of Turkish music and felt certain similarities with the changing meters and tessitura of the opera. I supposed we are all still trying to ‘get into the groove’ during this early days of rehearsals and I am certain more insights will be revealed as we gradually submerge ourselves into the Brokeback sound-world.



I am Jun Zubillaga-Pow. I am very grateful to be given a National Arts Council grant by the Singapore government to be in residence at the Teatro Real Madrid for the whole of January. I am hoping to observe how opera productions are carried out as well as speak to people on their attitudes towards current socio-cultural issues such as class, ethnicity, urbanisation, gender and sexuality.

I was just reading the press dossier for the world premiere of Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx and Charles Wuorinen. It is interesting to note that they acknowledge themselves as ‘difficult’ people but also worked so well in collaboration with each other, to the extent of re-creating the original short story to include an apparition and a chorus of townspeople in the operatic rendition (coming after the film by Ang Lee). The inclusion of an extended dialogue between the librettist and composer (one male, one female, one gay, one straight, one rural, one urban) provides ample material for journalists and newspaper editors to sieve through.

While waiting for the plane, I managed to quickly read a short piece in Opera, the British magazine, about how Ennis in the opera finally get a second shot at fidelity (first straight, now gay) as revealed by Ms Proulx. Just as Jack Twist is this time played by a singer of colour, next month’s Opera will also be discussing the racial politics of opera. So stay tuned. Ms Proulx also said that the opera will never be shown in Wyoming for it is still a ‘homophobic’ place. Well, tomorrow will be my first glimpse into the rehearsals and I will keep you updated.