Riders’ Rides Again World-class artists bring iconic story to stage and screen
Wednesday, August 28, 2019
By Karen Werner
This is a story of what happens, or rather, what can happen, when you combine the best of Arizona — a writer, a composer, a filmmaker, a painter and the arts and philanthropic communities — and it produces something monumental, something magically more than the sum of its already impressive parts.
From the day that a washed-out hike led to one man’s discovery of a classic tale ripe for retelling, “Riders of the Purple Sage” has enjoyed a serendipitous journey to the Arizona stage. And now the opera — after its sold-out world premiere run by Arizona Opera in 2017 — will soon gallop back for both its hugely anticipated return and a film documenting its production.
So saddle up, Arizona.
“None of it happened as it should,” said award-winning composer Craig Bohmler, recalling the genesis of the production. In 2011, after a successful musical-theater spell in Branson, Missouri, he and his husband were spending a summer day in Payson, looking to recharge with a hike to Fossil Creek. “The heavens opened up,” he said, so they had to find an alternate destination: Zane Grey’s cabin.
“I’m embarrassed to say I knew that Zane Grey had been famous for Arizona, but I didn’t really know why,” Bohmler said. That night he looked for Grey’s titles on his Kindle and settled on the one with the most evocative name: “Riders of the Purple Sage.”
Thirty pages in, Bohmler knew it would be his next project. The book was melodramatic with heightened emotions, but resonated in a contemporary way. “The religious fundamentalism, the women’s rights, the gun issues — all of that was very prevalent in there and I thought, well this is an interesting story,” Bohmler said.
He stayed up all night reading the book and finished a treatment for an opera in just two weeks. Then he called his friend and frequent collaborator, Steven Mark Kohn, and asked him to get involved.
“He said, ‘I don’t even like opera,’” Bohmler recalled. “But I said, ‘Read the book and give your hand to libretto writing.’"
Set in the Utah Territory circa 1870, “Riders” is a story of strength and redemption and is perhaps the most popular Western novel of all time. It was written by Zane Grey, a former dentist who went on to shape and memorialize the myth of the Old West that has captivated people around the world for generations.
“Riders” was Grey’s first commercial success, translated into 20 languages right after it was published in 1912, the year Arizona became a state. Filled with a strong-willed female rancher, a black-clad gunslinger, ranch hands, cattle rustlers and themes that resonate today — women’s rights, religious fundamentalism, vigilante justice, the search for home — the novel has sold more than 2 million copies and been adapted to film five times, last in 1996.
Arizona Opera heard about Bohmler’s project and called to inquire about it. He went to their office and dropped off what he had — his treatment, a bit of the act one libretto and one recorded aria — with a self-effacing Post-it saying, “It’s not very much.”
“They called me back to have a meeting and I thought it would just be one-on-one, but it was the whole staff sitting around the table,” Bohmler said.
He could almost hear the hoofbeats in the distance.
Enter Kristin Atwell Ford, a documentary filmmaker and Arizona native who was fresh off an Emmy win for her film about Roosevelt Dam. Bohmler took her to dinner in 2012 and told her about his new project.
“While he’s telling me this story, my vision fills with Ed Mell’s artwork. I can’t even say it was an idea; it was precognitive,” Atwell said. “Mell was my favorite living painter. I used to go to his shows and get the program to cut out and put up. That was where my Ed Mell collection started.”
She gave Bohmler a copy of a book on Mell, “Beyond the Visible Terrain,” and Bohmler immediately saw it, too. This was the missing character in his show: the landscape that the characters are forged against.
Internationally known, heavily collected, and the subject of books and articles in major art publications, Ed Mell is a Phoenix native whose work portrays the strength and majesty of the American West. Although he’s best known for his paintings, Mell is also well regarded for his sculptures, such as Jack Knife, the perilously perched cowboy riding a bronco in Old Town Scottsdale.
In other words, he’s an art world rock star.
Now, Bohmler and Atwell were conspiring to bring their expanded vision to life. Atwell wrangled her Rolodex to get a meeting with Mell, whom she had never met. Like starstruck teenagers, she and Bohmler headed for the Coronado District to Mell’s studio in a former grocery store he converted decades ago.
“Craig and I came here like, ‘We get to meet Ed Mell!’” Atwell said. “Make no mistake. It’s like getting to work with the Beatles to work with Ed. It’s a big deal.”
Hoping just to license some of Mell’s images for the opera, Bohmler and Atwell explained how they felt his shimmering skies, translucent clouds and architecturally inspired buttes would make the perfect backdrop for the story.
“Who’s doing your hard sets?” he asked. “You know, I’ve always wanted to design for the stage.”
Happily, the fortuitous meeting was memorialized thanks to Atwell, who had decided that the making of this new opera would be the subject of her next documentary film. Since the time Bohmler told her about his project, it stuck in Atwell’s imagination. “How do you make an opera?” she asked. “Because it’s this huge, complex art form that encompasses all of these other disciplines.”
Atwell’s full-length film, Riders of the Purple Sage: The Making of a Western Opera, follows Zane Grey’s experiences writing the novel and portrays how artists came together a century later to re-tell that classic story in a modern live performance using music, visual art and the human voice.
Bohmler provided the operatic music, of course, a lush score reminiscent of Hollywood Westerns. And in 2013, Mell came on board as scenic designer, an opportunity he welcomed with open arms.
“Artists throughout history have designed stage settings for operas and plays, so I kind of figured this was one of those things that I should jump at,” he said. “I always thought I’d love to do a stamp and then the Arizona Centennial stamp just kind of fell in my lap. And my bronze in Scottsdale — those are things you want to do that sort of leave your mark after you’re gone.”
Soon the team was loping off, putting the pieces of the production together with a kind of Arizona dream team. After Mell signed on, Arizona Opera announced they would do the world premiere. Then, Atwell rustled Billie Jo and Judd Herberger to become executive producers. In addition to providing significant funding for the opera, they are supporting the film, which will itself premiere in early 2020.
“They were tremendously enthusiastic,” Atwell said. “Judd used to play at the old Zane Grey cabin in Payson and has very fond memories about the way Zane Grey and his stories live in his imagination.”
As Bohmler put it, “Without them, this would not have happened.”
In 2015, the creative team visited sites in Utah and Arizona that inspired the story — petroglyphs at Betatakin Canyon, the ranch that Grey modeled “Riders” heroine Jane Withersteen’s ranch on — trying to understand Grey’s artistic process.
In doing so, Atwell gained a greater appreciation for the artists bringing “Riders” to the stage, along with some magnificent footage. “The way Zane Grey was influenced by the landscape is very much what I’ve seen in Ed’s work and in Craig’s work. You have these three major artists inspired by the same sunsets, dust and world-class scenery.”
That scenery was brought vividly to stage by Mell. Known for his panoramic abstract landscapes, Mell’s work is colorful, hard-edged and angular, with a permanence as if carved in stone. It became his job to translate the West’s towering rock formations and breathtaking vistas for the stage. To do so, he created movable panels — some soaring 28 feet high — and a series of digital sky paintings that were projected on a huge high-tech screen.
“I was grateful that we could do something 28 feet high, which really is an immense scale. People look small next to it, which you do in the real landscape. To me, that was a great thing, because I’ve dealt with those forms for 40 years,” Mell said.
The icing on the cake, according to Mell, was when Arizona Opera brought in a new lighting designer. They had planned to do rear projection, which takes up a lot of the stage and is washed out by ambient light, but late in the game decided to use a 30-by-60 foot LED screen. The Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust funded this state-of-the-art video wall to the tune of $425,000 so the iconic tale of “Riders of the Purple Sage” could be told properly, amid jaw-dropping mountains, vistas, canyons and sunsets.
“It changed the show,” Mell said.
When “Riders” received its world premiere in 2017 — the first ever produced by Arizona Opera — it blazed new trails and showed how a classic genre could support a fresh adaptation. Not only was it a huge critical success, it was a great commercial success, outselling even the stalwart, “Carmen.”
“The opportunity to combine Zane Grey’s visceral storytelling about the American West with the power of opera was incredibly unique and exciting,” said Joseph Specter, president and general director of Arizona Opera. “The cinematic music and words of Craig Bohmler and Steven Mark Kohn, the direction of Fenlon Lamb and the stunning scenery made possible by Ed Mell created such an impact on the communities that Arizona Opera serves. We are deeply proud as a company to have played a role in bringing this work to life, and grateful for the chance to bring it back to Arizona in the season to come.”
But before the opera canters back over the horizon, Atwell’s film will inform how these artists, influenced by this landscape, translated this story into fine art and literature and music — and how it all came together.
“At a very intimate level, I’m fascinated by how artists do their work,” Atwell said. “What I learned from Craig and Ed more than anything is that they have an amazing work ethic. To get to follow all of these different artists’ processes and see how these pieces come together in a type of collaboration that I think is rare these days — where everyone’s working toward the same goal to make this incredibly huge piece of art — it’s been the greatest honor and biggest challenge of my life.”
It’s been eight years since Boemler’s Fossil Creek hike got jumped by a summer rainstorm, but the wild terrain he’s trekked since then has been even more remarkable than the landscape he missed out on that day. Every detour and side trail he found along the journey has led to heroes to guide and to aid. Just like in Western movies.
“There were so many things that could have gone wrong,” Bohmler said. “But the right person always showed up at the right time.”
To learn more about “Riders of the Purple Sage,” go to azopera.org/performances/riders-purple-sage.
To learn more about Riders of the Purple Sage: The Making of a Western Opera, visit ridersoperafilm.com.