Written and Photo by Lindsay Hargrave
A conversation about gender is bound to be provoked when it is known that the composer of Cold Mountain is a woman. Yes, this opera is about women; becoming independent, learning to love and supporting each other. However, it is also an opera about war, struggle, and pain, which affects everyone who feels the visceral and paining trials of battle and lost love. The characters’ characteristics, which are too often glossed over or completely absent in traditional and modern opera, as well as the majority of drama and literature, are the many subtle traits expressed deeply through the women and vulnerability in the men. Overall, the work is a masterpiece, blending an incredible human story with music that represents struggle just as well.
This struggle begins with Ada, the heart aching orphaned young woman whose lover Inman went away to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War, leaving her alone on a farm which she has no idea how to run. The independent mountain woman, Ruby (who raised herself on a farm after her alcoholic father abandoned her as a child), sees her plight and comes to teach her the ways of farming in exchange for making her own home on the farm. Together, they work to forget their pasts and survive on Ada’s farm, giving each other hope in a time when male dependency was expected.
On the other hand, the male characters, particularly Inman and Ruby’s father, display vulnerability and weakness through their words and actions, breaking down Civil War-Era gender roles for men as well. For example, Inman shows his doubts about killing and participating in war, and so he deserts the Confederacy and tries to go home. Although his trials and journey home are strongly based on the Odyssey, he is not a typical war hero. He is afraid. He is in love. He has strong emotions and vulnerability, just as Odysseus does, which is one of the most beautiful parts of this opera.
The same goes for Ruby’s father. As a recovering alcoholic searching for redemption, his defenses are low and the emotions are high when he has to beg his estranged daughter for help hiding from the law. The love, regret, and humility that he expresses in that moment are raw and real, as he holds no archetypical masculine pride and is an honest and accurate emotional depiction of a real, vulnerable person.
Of course, the malice and destruction of war and its perpetuators are fully embodied in grotesque accuracy as well. Teague, the leader of the Confederate Home Guard responsible for bringing deserters like Inman and Ruby’s father to justice (and the main villain), is a masterpiece of lawful evil. While he is simply doing his job—and doing it well—he is still evil in the audience’s eyes. Of course, we are also talking about the Confederacy, so even his lawful actions are to benefit the Confederate war effort which today we would call monstrous and evil as well.
Teague’s evil in the name of the law has an interesting relationship with the musicality of the opera as well. While all of the characters with whom we hold empathy sing pretty much exclusively atonally, Teague can often be heard (tonally) singing the folk song “Shady Grove” as he traverses the South conducting his bounty hunt—a symbol that what he is doing is technically a lawful order.
That said, the slightly uncomfortable atonality of the entire work, along with the haphazard-looking wooden beams which make up the set, eke out the sensation of destruction by war. Every aspect of this performance evokes a sense of confusion, fear and war-torn sadness that is timeless beyond history.
Bottom line: Cold Mountain could be about any war. So could the Odyssey, or this story would have no business existing. And from the rawness and realness demonstrated throughout this visceral yet beautiful performance, the old saying certainly rings true: “all is fair in love and war.”