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Arizona Opera set to make history with 'Riders'
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Arizona Opera set to make history with 'Riders'

When the curtains come up Saturday night for “Riders of the Purple Sage,” the 45-year-old Arizona Opera company will check off two major firsts: its first world premiere and its first commissioned opera.

If you’re wondering if it’s a big deal, consider who will be in the audience when the show moves to Phoenix next weekend: representatives from opera companies that might be interested in mounting the work; descendants of Zane Grey, whose seminal Western novel “Riders of the Purple Sage” is the basis of the opera; nationally recognized critics; and one of opera’s biggest names, composer Carlisle Floyd (“Susannah,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Of Mice and Men”).

“The energy that’s built up around the piece is monumental,” said Joseph Specter, who took over as general director and president of Arizona Opera last summer, four years into the company’s journey to bring “Riders” from the score to the stage.

“I don’t think that it’s possible to be a successful opera company today without having a healthy balance of both beloved operas and new works and also things that don’t fall neatly into a category,” he added.

“I think ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’ is in that ether. We are in a time where the revitalization of opera as an art form is really happening in a very active way and especially among the companies that are really making an impact on their communities. It’s just about finding that perfect mix, and I would say that within ‘Riders’ itself, you have this great balance between opera and a classical modern voice of an operatic composer and theater. It sort of ties together all of the things that makes opera today exciting.”

We’ve put together a little audience guide of things you might want to know before you head over to Tucson Music Hall on Saturday, Feb. 25, or Sunday, Feb. 26, for the world premiere.

Starting from scratch: When you’re doing a world premiere, it assumes one basic premise: This has never been done before. So everything is new, from the brilliant sets to the score and book to the costumes.

Arizona Opera’s costume shop manager Kathleen Trott designed the costumes using period photographs of frontier people and classic Hollywood Westerns as guideposts. Since August, Trott and her staff, that in crunch time numbered about a dozen, have created as many as 80 separate garments, from Elder Tull’s twin blue frocks in slightly different shades of blue to Jane Withersteen’s embroidered light purple dress with hand-painted trim. Trott said some items, including those frocks, took as much as 40 hours apiece.

“It is kind of nice to know that the touchstone for any further production of this is ours because we’re the company that created it,” said Trott, who noted that her crew has been busy all season creating new costumes for four of Arizona Opera’s five productions this season, including the season finale “Cinderella” in April.

The story: Based on Zane Grey’s seminal novel, “Riders” is a story of Jane Withersteen, a devout Mormon woman who inherits her father’s sprawling ranch in the Utah territory along the Arizona border. She’s being pressured by the church to marry Elder Tull, which, not surprisingly, is not on her to-do list. Her refusal prompts threats of violence when a mysterious gunman, Lassiter, comes to save the day. Lassiter is looking for his long-lost sister Milly, who was spirited away as an infant by the church. The story includes murder, a love story between Jane and Lassiter, a gallant white knight and the ultimate operatic ending — a dramatic martyred death.

The first true Western opera: There have been a couple operas that are geographically Western, including Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán’s “Arizona Lady” that takes place in Tucson, which Arizona Opera mounted in 2015; and Italian composer Giacomo Puccini’s “La fanciulla del West” (The Girl of the West), which takes place in California and is more spaghetti Western. But neither of those works featured the elements that define the classic Western, said Arizona composer Craig Bohmler, who penned “Riders of the Purple Sage.”

“A Western is actually more of an iconic form,” he explained. “A lone gunman comes to save the damsel in distress. It usually involves Native Americans or a land grab or it takes place in a harsh territory where the law is trying to define itself. That’s what really makes up a classic Western.”

For reference: Think John Wayne, Joel McCrea, Clint Eastwood, Audie Murphy and Willcox’s own Rex Allen.

Zane Grey’s Arizona connections: Grey was a baseball player and New York City dentist with ambitions to become a writer when he took a trip to the Grand Canyon in 1904. The experience inspired him to begin writing Western novels. From then until his death in 1939, Grey penned 64 novels, more than 300 short stories and 10 nonfiction Westerns. He quickly became one of the country’s biggest selling authors, and 130 movies were made based on his books. His most successful novel was his 1912 novel “Riders,” which sold more than 2 million copies. At the time of his death in 1939, sales of his novels topped 17 million.

Grey spent weeks on end each year in his cabin in the Tonto Basin from 1923 to 1930. The cabin burned to the ground in the 1990 Dude Fire. In 2003, the Zane Grey Cabin Foundation raised $200,000 and built a replica in Payson, where it also is home to the Rim Country Museum. Last year about 6,000 visitors came to view the museum at 700 S. Green Valley Parkway in Payson; 1-928-474-3483.

Brilliant Arizona landscapes: When you think of Arizona — what it looks like — brilliant red canyon walls and golden-hued sunsets with dusty green brush and towering saguaro cacti come to mind. And that’s what you’ll experience from the artwork of celebrated Arizona artist Ed Mell. His landscapes provide the backdrop for “Riders of the Purple Sage.” Thanks to some hi-tech projection technology, you will be lulled into believing that you are standing beneath the wide-open desert skies, the artist said.

“I could not believe how my work, projected on a 30-by-60-foot LED screen, looked,” said Mell, whose paintings and sculptures are sold at Tucson’s Medicine Man Gallery, 6872 E. Sunrise Drive. “It brings the intensity of a real sunset to life. To see it on that scale, that intensity of the screen, that’s a great joy and a real honor.”

“We all grew up watching cowboy and Indian movies, that John Wayne thing,” said stage director Fenlon Lamb. “Craig has done such a wonderful job expressing that. It’s what you would expect but with an operatic flair. There are sweeping melodies that showcase the wide-open chords and orchestration highlighting the wild landscape, and Ed Mell’s canyon walls. The pace of your heart quickens when you see this sort of landscape with this sound and these iconic figures.”

Music that speaks our language: Don’t expect to hear blatant echoes of the silver screen when Conductor Joseph Mechavich strikes up the Arizona Opera Orchestra for the opening prelude. There’s this sweeping grandiosity to it, though, that recalls Copland and Bernstein, two quintessential American composers.

“You will sense the Arizona landscape in the sound,” said Mechavich, making his second Arizona Opera appearance. “When people think of contemporary music, they shudder in their pants. When they think of contemporary American music, they still don’t know what it is. But American music speaks to every one of us.”

Composer Bohmler said the lovely prelude slams into a violent opening scene that has some abstract melodies. The form also borrows influences from Bohmler’s musical theater background — he’s written musical theater for 20 years and has had his pieces performed around the country and in England.

“I’m not going to pretend like I don’t have a musical theater background; I do,” he said, noting that he uses reprises in “Riders” much like he uses them in his musicals to recall certain points in the action.

Everyone has a stake: Arizona Opera started working on bringing “Riders of the Purple Sage” with Bohmler in 2012. Many of the key players joined a year or two later, including Lamb and Mechavich. With every rehearsal and run-through, the piece started coming together in ways that brought giddy childlike smiles throughout the company’s downtown Phoenix rehearsal hall.

“Every time another element comes in, I just think to myself, ‘holy wow, yeah, this is good,’ ” Lamb fairly gushed during a rehearsal break last week. “My heart is pounding every time I see a new and wonderful thing happening. I’m a little giggly, and if you know me, that’s not usually me.”

Lamb has been involved in “Riders” since its early workshops before the piece was fully finished. When she walked into the rehearsal hall a month ago, she felt like a kid let loose at the Times Square Toys R Us.

“It’s like a dream come true. I get to move the bodies and talk about all the stuff that’s been rolling around my head for months,” she said.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com or 573-4642. On Twitter @Starburch

Cathalena has covered music for the Star for the past 20 years. She's a graduate of Arizona State University has worked at Sedona Red Rock News, Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, New York; and USA Today.

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