The news that New York City Opera commissioned Charles Wuorinen to compose an opera based on Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain last week, to premiere in 2013, created some fairly predictable snickering and water-cooler discussion about what incoming NYCO general manager Gerard Mortier was thinking. What got me wondering, though, was something a little less gasp-worthy than a short story and Oscar-winning film about two guys who got it bad for each other than those two little words, short story. Can an effective opera be created out of something so slender?
Maybe it's because I've been immersed in the New Granta Book of the American Short Story for several months, but before you can even get to the opera question, you have to figure out what constitutes a short story. Then you have to figure out where a short story becomes a novella. Richard Ford, the editor of that volume, writes right up front in the introduction that short stories "want to give us something big but want to do it in precious little time and space." Ford has written volumes of short stories and novellas, so I think we can assume him to be a reliable guide. For my money, a short study can be read in a sitting less than two hours, and maxes out around twenty pages. (For the sake of all things holy, leave long short stories out of this.)
So, are there any operas based on short stories? Britten's Death in Venice is based on the Thomas Mann novella, which is commonly referred to as a short story, but it's more than a hundred pages, and something similar can be said for Gogol's The Nose and Nicolai Leskov's Lady Macbeth of Mtensk District, which inspired Shostakovich. It's possible to argue that operas require a literary source that's a little more substantial than the tidy short story. Madame Butterfly began life as a short story by John Luther Long, but it's the David Belasco play that's cited most often for Puccini's inspiration.
There must be several operas with similar source material that I'm simply unaware of, and I hope that I'm notified of them. But even this short list exposes something to watch for when Wuorinen's creation hits the boards: its length. Will he turn this into a chamber opera, a la Britten? Or will it be something that tries to capture the Western expanse of Proulx's story? (I haven't seen the film, but Wuorinen is on record as locating his inspiration in the story, so we'll see how much Hollywood seeps into the production. The film will be eight years old by the time of the premiere, and it will be interesting to see how it grows into a pop-culture touchstone.)
The last question raised by this goes back to the assertion that Mortier is grabbing headlines with the story of two gay cowboys, one of whom is murdered. And that question is how much the film's fame played into its decision to be turned into an opera. There are certainly passages that would have composers licking their chops. I don't know how the Jack Twist's death is handled in the film, but in the story, it is veiled in mystery while leading strongly in one direction, and the reader never fully learns whether he was murdered as a consequence of his homosexuality or if he had a roadside accident changing a tire. A composer could have a great time underlining the subtext there, pointing towards murder in the orchestra as the characters sing about the accidental death. Britten or Wagner would have had a field day using their motifs in such a fashion. Will Wuorinen? And can Proulx's short story support such an apparatus?