Riders of the Purple Sage

Phoenix-based composer pens world’s first Western opera

By Seth Reines, November 2017 Issue.

Craig Bohmler. Courtesy photo.

This year, Arizona Opera heralded two firsts: its first world premiere and the world’s first Western opera.

After a lush overture that sounded like the score from a vintage Hollywood film, first-nighters (a third of whom had never attended an opera before) were dazzled by Riders of the Purple Sage.

Based on the Zane Grey novel of the same name, the Wild West adventure featured a $475,000 video wall with scenic projections by world-renowned Arizona artist Ed Mell, a libretto by Steven Mark Kohn and a stirring score by Phoenix composer Craig Bohmler.

Bohmler first discovered Zane Grey while hiking in Payson. To escape a rainstorm, he ducked into the Zane Grey Cabin and Museum (700 S. Green Valley Parkway in Payson). Intrigued by Grey’s body of work (64 western novels and 130 movies), Bohmler began reading Grey’s quintessential western classic The Riders of the Purple Sage and knew immediately it had to be an opera.

Bohmler’s Riders is the culmination of a four-year initiative dubbed “Arizona Bold,” which focused on recent works with specific relevance to Southwestern audiences. The Texas native, who thrives both artistically and personally in the Southwest, maintains “The desert speaks to a spiritual side of me and nature is abundant.”

The overwhelming success of Arizona Opera’s Riders, with record ticket sales and sold-out houses, prompted two longtime supporters to donate $1 million to subsidize future premiere productions.

Arizona Opera’s president and general director Joseph Specter affirms, “The gift empowered Arizona Opera to take greater artistic risks. The success of Riders of the Purple Sage was an affirmation that our community is deeply interested in experiencing dynamic new work.”

A fount of imaginative works, Bohmler’s credits include four operas and 10 musicals, which have been performed throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan.

Echo caught up with Bohmler to find out more about his most-recent work, and here’s what he had to say.

Echo: What is your greatest professional achievement?

Bohmler: Certainly Riders. I am also very proud of Enter the Guardsman and Gunmetal Blues, which both had Off-Broadway and London productions.  (Editor’s note: Guardsman won Musical of the Year in Denmark and was nominated for Best Musical at London’s Olivier Awards.)

Echo: What is your greatest personal achievement?

Bohmler: Meeting Rusty Ferracane and being with him for 22 years now. We were married in 2015 … Rusty is a very kind man with an open heart. He is an extremely talented singer, actor, director and my best dramaturg – and he makes me coffee every morning.

Echo: What do you like best about your career?

Bohmler: I get to make music daily by writing, performing or teaching, and each satisfies different needs in me. I do not take for granted the work I do and am always grateful that I have been able to pursue and make a living at it since I was 24.

Echo: Do you have a bucket list?

Bohmler: I mostly try and execute my bucket list with regularity. Next summer, I will raft down the Grand Canyon with good friends and my husband. I did it in 1991 and it is my favorite trip so far. I also want to go to Thailand and the islands off of its coast, as well as New Zealand. Traveling and having adventures with my husband brings me great joy so, if I am doing that, my bucket list is fulfilled.

Echo: What upcoming projects can you tell us about?

Bohmler: I usually work on two to three projects at a time. I am writing a small piece for viola and chamber orchestra for the San Jose Chamber Orchestra, my 10th commission by them. I am also writing the music for The Boob Show, which was created by my good friend Sally Jo Bannow. We have been working on it for a few years and are excited it will premiere on February 14, 2018, at Phoenix Theatre. (Editor’s Note: This will be Bohmler’s sixth new work for Phoenix Theatre.)

Courtesy photo.

Echo: If you were not a composer, what would you want to be?

Bohmler: I might like to be a linguist (etymologist) or an English teacher. I have always loved languages and their history. I read (and was read to) a great deal when I was growing up, so literature means a great deal to me. Perhaps that is why I write primarily for the stage. I’ve also fantasized about being a guide around the western national parks (Arizona, Utah and California) for foreign tourists.

Echo: What do you hope your legacy will be?

Bohmler: I don’t really think about it. History will take care of that question. I have written many works, and they have touched many audiences. If, in the moment, something I did transported someone even for a short time, then that is enough reason to have done it. I tend to live in the moment, so I do not project much into the future.

This fall, Arizona Opera’s Riders of the Purple Sage will be broadcast as part of PBS’ American Opera Radio Series. For broadcast dates, visit radionetwork.wfmt.com/programs/arizona. Or, for more information on Bohmler’s masterworks, visit craigbohmler.com.