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Finding Inspiration: Arizona Opera in the Wild

Alesea Cosgrove – December 3, 2015

“I need this wild life, this freedom.” –Zane Grey

In 2017, Arizona Opera will feature the world premiere of an adaption of Zane Grey’s classic Western novel Riders of the Purple Sage. Before the production comes to the stage, however, the creative team behind the adaption took a trip in the shoes of Riders author Zane Grey.

Riders of the Purple Sage, originally published in 1912, is credited as being the catalyst to launching the western genre into popularity. It follows the story of Jane Withersteen, who inherited wealth and a prosperous ranch in a Mormon settlement from her late father. She and her father were members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and Jane faces persecution from its other members for refusing the marry one of their elders as well as befriending and employing riders from outside of the church.

She is soon driven out of the settlement by the Church, who scatter her herds and damage her property, and eventually escapes with the help of the mysterious Lassiter.

Composer Craig Bohmler, librettist Steven Mark Kohn, artist turned set designer Ed Mell, Director of Production Doug Provost, costume shop manager Kathleen Trott and others set off for the border of Arizona and Utah to see the real-world places used by Grey as inspiration for the settings in his great Western tale.

The group visited Pipe Springs, UT and traveled through parts of the Navajo Nation and Northern Arizona, including Kayenta, Arizona. They were also given special access and escorted on a scenic tour down into Batakin Canyon to see the ruins and petroglyphs located at its basin. Of particular importance to the team was to visit the actual ranch that Grey used as inspiration for Jane Withersteen’s ranch, located in southern Utah. Visiting these real-world locations proved to be an invaluable experience for the creative team.


Arizona and Utah: A Journey into Zane Grey's World

Inspiration for Jane's Ranch

“When Grey describes Jane’s herds being driven into the canyons,” Provost said, “you can actually see what he is talking about. When you’re standing on the ranch and looking out over the canyons, you can just imagine the scene unfolding in front of you.”

The team plans to use what they saw during their adventure as inspiration for scenic, lighting and costume design for the production, from the large brick façade of Jane’s ranch to the vast and sweeping valleys and deep canyons to the untamed landscape and luminous sunsets famous in the West.

Keep an eye out for more from the creative team as they work to bring Grey’s Wild West to life; we’ll keep you posted about everything that’s going into this historic production!