Bold. Brave. Brilliant.

Southwestern and universal: all the colors of “Riders of the Purple Sage”

Katrina Becker – February 20, 2020

When Arizona Opera premiered the opera Riders of the Purple Sage in 2017, the production was everything composer Craig Bohmler imagined.

“It was really quite extraordinary,” he recalls. “Arizona Opera did everything they said they were going to; they didn’t tell me, ‘We’re running out of money -- cut this’ or ‘Make that change.’ This was the smoothest process I’ve ever engaged in.”

Bohmler’s vision of Riders was inspired by a visit to author Zane Grey’s Payson, Arizona cabin replica in 2012. He nurtured his creation with librettist Steven Mark Kohn through five years of composition, orchestration and workshopping documented in the film Riders of the Purple Sage: The Making of a Western Opera.

Based on Grey’s novel about a devout Mormon heroine defending her ranch and her friends with the help of a gunslinger, the opera enjoyed a successful world premiere. Its eagerly-awaited return to Arizona brings it to Symphony Hall in Phoenix from Feb. 28 through Mar. 1, and back to Tucson’s Music Hall from Mar. 7-8.

Throughout the development of Riders both composer and librettist welcomed suggestions from participants and observers alike. “When you do a workshop you have to listen to the audience, and if you start to hear consensus that’s the truth,” recalls Bohmler. “If anybody had an idea germane to the thing we almost always incorporated it.”

“I’m a quintessential collaborator,” Bohmler continues. “I made almost 400 changes after the first workshop based on singers saying ‘I don’t like that vowel’ or ‘Could you make the phrase go higher?’” He smiles. “[Stage director] Fenlon Lamb goes, ‘Can I have 30 seconds of music for a costume change I really want to do?’ I said, ‘Sure. Where would you like that?’ That’s how that works.”

“I really wanted a woman director,” says Bohmler, “because there’s so much masculinity in Zane Grey. We needed feminine energy driving this thing because it’s really [the heroine’s] story.” He adds, “Fenlon is very smart but she’s also emotionally unrestrained...she’s just a delight that way. She’s great fun to work with -- we laughed a lot.”

“Every time you tell the story of an opera you come together,” says Lamb. “As a team, what’s our common shared language and what are the devices we use together to create this magic?”

Bohmler made an effort to tread lightly in his portrayal of Mormonism and the fundamental zeal of a few of his characters by distinguishing them as individuals. “I was very careful to honor the Mormon community, and I sent the opera’s book and synopsis to a Mormon friend for review,” he explains. “Frankly, black-and-white storytelling isn’t interesting to me. This story wasn’t just a case of ‘good guy and bad guy,’ which is why I find it so compelling.”

“The more I read about Mormons, the more I liked them,” Bohmler says, “and the more I appreciated what they had to do. We wanted to show that really they were just trying to find home.” He continues, “I can’t imagine how, in a country that had guaranteed freedom of religion, these people were persecuted and martyred, and the government never stepped in.”

The appeal of Riders lies in its dazzling combination of suspenseful storyline with lush, accessible music and near-overwhelming visual saturation, thanks to the scenic design of Arizona artist Ed Mell, whose iconic images are popular souvenirs of the Grand Canyon. Mell’s skyscapes attain vivid realism with Arizona Opera’s LED video wall, which opened the door to seamless high-tech stagecraft.

“Ed gave us access to his library,” says Bohmler. “All those paintings -- they move, they twist and they change, depending on whether it’s dawn or dusk.” In fact, it’s nearly impossible to perceive each moment of metamorphosis from the audience; the vast backdrops are seamlessly hypnotic.

“We want to feel the passing of time without really recognizing...boom! scenery change!” explains Lamb. After seeing Mell’s images, she says, “I latched on to the feeling of change and the different moods you can get out of those clouds.” She continues, “He was able to create this atmosphere within the world of Riders of the Purple Sage that’s like the cowboy tales of the Technicolor 1950s -- it rolled out in a way that was really exciting.” Lamb sighs reminiscently. “He digs in and finds the essence of clouds about to rain. It just happens to be in this different style that takes your breath away and lets you escape into that world.”

She adds, “I don’t want the reality of the video; I want the flexibility of it, and the way it can make people feel by changing so magically.”

Zane Grey patterned the Withersteen Ranch of Riders after a real location: Pipe Spring National Monument near Fredonia, Arizona, south across the state line from Kanab, Utah on Highway 89A. Built over the main spring, Winsor Castle is a still-standing fort which supported cattle ranching and travelers.

“It was great to go to all these places and discover how Grey wove them into the narrative,” Bohmler says. “When you look at the Arizona landscape from up high, you know how it sounds.” His musical influences included the composers Copland, Sondheim, Weill, and Carlisle Floyd, Bohmler’s mentor and the opera’s dedicatee.

“Carlisle was very pleased,” the composer recalls, “and it meant a great deal to me because as his student about the best it ever got was ‘Well, I think you’re onto somethin’.” Bohmler continues, “I played through the love duet and he slapped me on the back and said, ‘Good boy!’” He laughs happily. “That never has felt so good. I was like a kid again.”

Although Riders feels boundless and epic, thanks to the confluence of Mell’s broad, evocative brushstrokes and Bohmler’s open-handed musical style, the composer points out that the show is not a huge production.

“It’s actually a really small piece,” he explains. ”When the chorus comes on, it’s just 20 men twice. Other than that, there are only two or three people onstage at the same time.” Bohmler laughs at my surprise. “Think about it when you see it again.”

“The emotions are high and the landscape is massive,” he continues. “That’s why it seems so much bigger.”

“I wrote to each of the principal players in the orchestra before the first rehearsal,” the composer says. “I sent them all the score and said, ‘Is there anything you feel is awkward?’ Because I pride myself on my ability to write for instruments, but I said ‘It’s not just my show; you have to play this.’” Bohmler pauses. “And every change they asked for I gave them.” He shrugs. “Why would I not do that? Then they feel empowered; they’ve had a part of the creative process.”

“The orchestra is 55 pieces,” he elaborates. “You’ve got to have that big Western movie sound.” Bohmler chuckles. “Hopefully I tipped my hat without getting pedantic or overzealous.” He adds, “I know I’m a good orchestrator, but I had no idea the orchestra would sound so rich, and most importantly that I’d be able to make it sound big and still get out of the way of the singers.”

With Arizona Opera’s remount of Riders, Lamb looks forward to the opportunity to revisit earlier artistic decisions and change elements of the staging. “There was a lot of joy and playfulness in this production,” she says. “We’re improving on something that was wonderful.”

Arizona Opera performs Riders of the Purple Sage Feb. 28-Mar. 1 in Phoenix at Symphony Hall, and Mar. 7-8 at Tucson’s Music Hall. Find more information at


© Katrina Becker