Charles Frazier’s 1997 best-selling debut novel “Cold Mountain” captured the hearts of readers worldwide with the story of a wounded Confederate soldier’s harrowing journey through western North Carolina to reunite with his beloved.
Millions more fans came to love these characters – Inman and Ada – in the 2003 award-winning film adaptation starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger.
Now the lovers live on in an operatic version of “Cold Mountain” by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon. A co-production by N.C. Opera and Carolina Performing Arts will be presented Sept. 28 and Oct. 1 in Memorial Hall on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill.
It’s the North Carolina debut for the production and only the third time it has been presented in the country. The recording of the Santa Fe premiere garnered two Grammy nominations this year.
The production also is the biggest in the N.C. Opera’s eight-year history, both financially and physically. The 97-piece set, which has traveled from Santa Fe, N.M., to Philadelphia to Chapel Hill, takes several 18-wheelers to deliver.
When Frazier began writing “Cold Mountain” while teaching at N.C. State University, his goals were modest, knowing the unfavorable odds for first novels.
“My biggest hope was it would get published,” he says, “and it would sell enough copies that I could get a better teaching job.”
Fortunately for Frazier, now 66, it turned out to be much more. The novel stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for 61 weeks, won the National Book Award and now has sold more than 3 million copies. The film went on to earn numerous awards, including an Oscar for Zellweger.
It led the way for Frazier to turn out two additional novels: “Thirteen Moons” in 2006 and “Nightwoods” in 2011. His fourth novel, “Varina,” is set to be published in April 2018. The novel, whose manuscript was submitted this month, is also is set in the Civil War but is about the second wife of Jefferson Davis.
The late director and screenwriter Anthony Minghella gave Frazier his first experience with adapting his book when crafting the movie. Minghella spent time talking with Frazier about dropping characters and creating new scenes to better tell the story visually and dramatically. Frazier said he was open-minded about the changes.
“The very worst way to make a movie from a novel is to be blindly faithful to it,” he says.
That attitude held Frazier in good stead when the next adaptation request came his way in 2010. Higdon, one of the most performed and commissioned American composers, had been searching several years for a suitable story for her first opera. Recalling the “Cold Mountain” movie, she decided to look at the novel.
“I read the first three pages and knew immediately this was the right story,” she says. “It felt like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes.”
Part of that comfort came from growing up in Maryville, Tenn., near the North Carolina state border and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“I looked at the map in the front of the book, and said, ‘I think where I grew up is on this map,’ ” she remembers. “I used Google Earth to confirm that our farm was just a little hop over the Smokies to Cold Mountain.”
By this time, Frazier had moved to Asheville and was, by his own admission, “kind of reclusive.” Higdon needed the book rights, but her lawyer was having no luck contacting Frazier.
Higdon’s librettist, Grammy nominee Gene Scheer, connected her with a university professor who knew the owner of Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books, the late Nancy Olson, a mentor for Frazier while writing “Cold Mountain.” Olson loved the idea, so she connected Higdon with Katherine Frazier, Charles Frazier’s wife, via email.
To help persuade the author, Higdon decided to write a very Southern email, “like I was knocking on the door to borrow a cup of sugar,” she says. Katherine Frazier wrote back immediately and said, “This sounds great.”
A work of integrity
Higdon and Scheer found Charles Frazier ideal to work with.
“When I’m asked if I had a say in the opera, I tell people the place where I had a say was when I agreed to let Jennifer and Gene have the rights,” Frazier says. “When you have artists of that caliber, you trust their work will have integrity.”
Frazier did have one question. “I wondered how Scheer was going to handle the fact that half the book is a guy walking,” Frazier recalls. “He answered that his last project was ‘Moby-Dick.’ ” That highly successful opera by Jake Heggie was all the proof Frazier needed.
“Scheer used a process of conflation, pulling pieces from here and there to make a new thing, referencing material in the novel but not being exactly the same,” Frazier said.
One example is the aria for Inman that combines separate descriptions of the battles of Petersburg and Fredericksburg into one. It’s not faithful to the book literally but is in spirit and intent.
Higdon had her own method of conveying a lot in just over two hours of music by giving each character a distinctive sound.
“For Inman, I used a lot of brass and metallic sounds,” she says, “and for Ruby, the industrious woman who comes to help Ada run her farm, I wrote a lot of fast-moving notes.” For the evil Teague, who hunts down Civil War deserters, Higdon added constant percussion to echo the sound of a rattlesnake.
Eric Mitchko, N.C. Opera’s general director, got wind of Higdon’s work on the opera in 2013.
“I immediately knew we had to bring the opera home to North Carolina,” he says. Arrangements were made for the Raleigh-based company to join the three original co-commissioners, Santa Fe Opera, which staged the world premiere in 2015, Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera.
Four singers from the Santa Fe premiere are starring in the NC Opera production, including Metropolitan Opera tenor Jay Hunter Morris as Teague. New to the cast are Charlotte resident and UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, soprano Melinda Whittington, as Ada, and baritone Edward Parks, hailed in the title role of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs ” at Santa Fe this past July, as Inman.
Frazier will join Higdon for the Chapel Hill performances, as he did in Santa Fe and Philadelphia.
“One of the things I never thought I’d be doing is walking onto the stage after an opera production to take a bow,” he says.
But he’s thrilled each time he sees the opera.
“Here these characters are, almost 20 years later, still alive and well.”
What: “Cold Mountain,” presented by N.C. Opera and Carolina Performing Arts
Where: Memorial Hall, 114 E. Cameron Ave, Chapel Hill on the UNC campus
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28; 2 p.m. Oct. 1
Tickets: $25 to $99
Info: ncopera.org (919-792-3850) or carolinaperformingarts.org (919-843-3333)