Out Philly composer on reaching new operatic heights

Jennifer Higdon may be Brooklyn-born and Tennessee-raised but it’s Philly, where she’s lived for three decades with partner-turned-wife Cheryl Lawson, that has provided the backdrop for her biggest musical moments — like writing her violin concerto, for which she won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize, or her percussion concerto, for which she snagged a 2009 Grammy Award for best contemporary classical composition.

So where better to hold the East Coast premiere of her debut opera than home sweet home? Based upon Charles Frazier’s 1997 novel “Cold Mountain,” Higdon’s same-titled work — with a libretto penned by Gene Scheer and co-commissioned by The Santa Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia — opens Feb. 5 at the Academy of Music.

PGN: Is it fair to say that you have been hands on for “Cold Mountain”? And, at what point do you draw back?

JH: I am hands on for the music only. There are so many people who work together to make an opera that it truly takes a village. But my responsibility really is just the music. Having said that, there is a lot of music in an opera, and a lot of performers: singers and an orchestra.

PGN: Did you truly consider “Cold Mountain” after reading the book or seeing the movie? What did you get internally from the story? And what did you get musically?

JH: It was reading the book that made me realize this was the exact story I needed to be inspired to write the opera. I have seen the movie several times, though not for half a dozen years. The story felt familiar because I lived some of my formative years in East Tennessee, which isn’t too far from the real Cold Mountain. But, I found the characters to be fascinating and great variety in the story-telling itself, which is perfect for operatic treatment … Love and death, two big opera themes.

PGN: Was there a composer or a compositional model for “Cold Mountain” different than, say, what might have been for another work of yours such as “Smash” or “Light Refracted”?

JH: There wasn’t any compositional model. I studied a tremendous number of opera scores from all periods and a wide range of composers in order to figure out how to balance a full orchestra with singers. Then there’s the question of how to move the action along to keep things interesting. The number-one piece of advice I got was, “Don’t make the opera too long.” Composing an opera feels so different from chamber works like “Smash” and “Light Refracted.” With this opera, I am responsible for taking care of the characters and drawing a musical version of the emotional and psychological state of the characters, through musical notes.

PGN: How much is genuine mountain music a part of your life?

JH: Mountain music has been a part of my life since I was 10, when I moved to East Tennessee. I have written bluegrass-flavored music before in my bluegrass/classical concerto “Concerto 4-3”; my choral work, “Southern Grace”; and my string-quartet piece, “Southern Harmony.” But, I find that it is best used as a musical language when suited for the occasion. I suspect it’s a little unusual to have someone crossing genres in such a manner. But I would say that it truly is bluegrass “flavoring” to a classical context.

PGN: How does the pulse, twang and flow of the speech of its people — mountain people — affect the opera?

JH: When my librettist gave me the libretto, I “Southernized” the language by converting some of the sentences and words used by the characters into a vernacular more suited to the South. I also tried to stay as close to the actual speech patterns when setting the words to music. The opera is in English, and I want it to be understandable even if there aren’t subtitles.

PGN: Let’s talk about you and Philly. You went to University of Pennsylvania. At Curtis, you hold the Milton L. Rock chair in compositional studies. How and why did you get to Philly in the first place?

JH: I came to Philly in the fall of 1986 to attend Curtis and have been here ever since. One of the things I love about this town is the chance to work with so many wonderful musicians in all of the various performing groups, and there are a lot. There’s a real spirit and willingness to work hard and put your heart into the effort. And, over time, I’ve enjoyed not only that experience but getting to know audience members and concert attendees.

PGN: Your wife Cheryl is from Philly. Where did you meet?

JH: I met my wife in high-school band in East Tennessee, so we’ve been together for 35 years. Because we’ve lived in Philly for 30 years, it feels like our town. Cheryl’s patience while I was composing this opera was amazing; even though I was home composing for 28 months, my brain was definitely not present. I was living in another time and place.

PGN: How does Opera Philadelphia embody or take to your work?

JH: “Cold Mountain” here has been one of the absolutely, most inspiring experiences I’ve ever had. I am in heaven.

“Cold Mountain” runs through Feb. 14 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. For more information or tickets, visit www.operaphila.org