Sunday, August 9, 2015

Cold Mountain, The Civil War & History

This year, in case you did not realize it, is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War as well as President Abraham Lincoln’s death and several events here in Santa Fe have celebrated the year in various ways.  First of all there is a new opera, which is having its world premier at the Santa Fe Opera.  Its called, “Cold Mountain” and takes place during the Civil War.  It is an intimate view of how the war affected families.  The opera is based on a book written by Charles R. Frazier.

The New Mexico History Museum has done a small exhibition on Lincoln and the Civil War.  The images in the exhibition show letters and photos of participants and family members as well as bloody battles which are put together as a tableau of four of the bloodiest years in American history with 620,000 casualties.

To bring it all together the Santa Fe Opera in conjunction with the History Museum created an amazing symposium called, “Echoes from Cold Mountain”.  The symposia that I am used to are dry academic affairs and if you are are lucky one lecture out of the day might be of interest but in this symposium there wasn’t a dull moment.

In the interest of full disclosure I did miss the first lecture, which was by Gary Gallagher, a Civil War Historian at the University of Virginia.  From what I gathered from those who did attend it was first rate.  He made the case for how media including photographs, films and books form our view of history even more than academic historians do.  He used film clips, which must have made it a lively hour.

The second part of the symposium was a fabulous panel including Hampton Sides, author of  “Blood & Thunder”, an epic history of the American West using Kit Carson (1809-1868) who lived in Taos, New Mexico, as its central figure.  Next to him was Kirk Ellis a writer for television and film and best known as writer and producer of the John Adams mini series on HBO.  The series received 23 Emmy nominations and won 13 but what made Kirk Ellis proudest was that it was being used in thousands of high school history classes.  With them was a professor of history at the University of New Mexico, Paul Hutton.  Oh, how I wish he had been my history teacher, what insight and sense of humor. One of his bon mots, “History is written by Generals and Knaves and believed by Idiots”!  Hampton Sides (3rd from right in photo) quipped “If all else fails, Paul, you can always do stand up”!

They all explained the compromises you have to make when writing history.  Sides spoke of Kit Carson being a historian’s nightmare because he was illiterate.  Upon hearing that Carson’s papers were in the State Archives he rushed there to find exactly 2 sheets of paper and one was his death certificate!  He, therefore, turned to the many interviews that Carson gave and the even more plentiful potboilers that were written about him in later years.  Hutton pointed out that every individual writes from his own point of view and if there was only one way to look at a historic figure it would be necessary to have only one book by one author, but there are many truths. 

The moderator for this panel was Estevan Rael-Galvez who is a born and bred New Mexican, a scholar and writer who has been the State Historian and served in Washington D.C. as Senior Vice President for Historic Sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  He told us that his grandmother taught him to tell stories, that they were gifts and one story should always lead to another.  Topics like the tyranny of chronology were discussed.  As a matter of fact I have that problem writing almost every week.  My editor is always moving my paragraphs around to put them into a new order… but I wanted to say it that way! 

Other continuous themes: we look at history as if it were in the past but taking place in the present.  We cannot lay today's morals and mores on those of the past, when people were living under totally different circumstances.  Most important was to keep it interesting and relevant, and even that a good storyteller also has to be a good liar!  Paul Hutton said he has classes with 2-300 students and he has to keep them awake … and himself as well!

The third session got us back to the opera.  Charles Frazier told us it took 8 years to write “Cold Mountain” and has been translated into 40 languages and was on the New York Times Best Seller list for 61 weeks.  A few years after it was published in 1997 a well-known and prolific composer whose music has been played by over 150 conductors, Jennifer Higdon, decided with much encouragement to write her first opera, and that she would base it on this 449 page book.  She picked Gene Sheer to write the libretto.  They got in touch with the director Leonard Foglia whose specialty is directing first time operas and he in turn hired long time collaborators Robert Brill as scenic designer, video designer Elaine J. McCarthy and fight director Rick Sordelet.

The symposium organizers managed to corral all of them on to the stage of the history museum.  They had the advantage of a fabulous moderator, Glyndebourne dramaturge Cori Ellison who got the most you could out of such a large group in about one hour!   What a fascinating process: we learned how the composer and librettist met at a Starbucks in Philadelphia to plot out which episodes from the book that they would use; conflation and even an added scene might prove necessary.  There needed to be solos, duets and quartets.  All had to be fitted into a two act play which had the self made restriction of not lasting more than 2 hours and 30 minutes.  They brought it in a bit less than that.  We heard how the director has to describe his vision of the set to the designer who has to figure out how it will fit together and make it navigable for the singers.  The video designer seemed quite happy because she could project on a dark background… or maybe that was a problem!  The fight director was in his element directing Civil War combat.

The penultimate symposium session was a lecture by Harold Holzer who was known as the Public Affairs Czar for the Metropolitan Museum and had just retired after 23 years, but is far better known as a pre-eminent Lincoln scholar and historian.  He has written prolifically and spoken often on the subject.  I have known Harold, if not well, in various circumstances, but he again surprised me.  He spoke of the Lincoln family, a story told through photography and other print media.  He first stated the obvious that Twitter and Instagram did not exist in the 19th century but in light of that much more startling was that before 1859 photographs could not be widely disseminated.  We know that etchings and woodcuts had been disseminated for hundreds of years but photography was a new and developing medium.  More personal was the fact that Mary Todd Lincoln would not allow photos of herself with Abe, probably because she was around 5 foot 2 inches and Abe was 6 foot 4 inches without his shoes and signature Stovepipe hat.  In order to put the two of them together they had to use Photoshop .  Not!  but there were methods for  achieving the same effect of making two images appear as one.  Harold also spoke of Lincoln’s family relationships.  Regarding his wife Mary Todd after 2 of her children had died she went through an emotional crises.  We saw photos of the busy statesman when he could spare the time to be with his children and one could see that he was a very loving father.

Photo by Jackie Neale Chadwick, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

The final event of the symposium was a Concert of Civil War Songs and Stories by Mark Lee Gardner & Rex Rideout, who was dressed as a Union Soldier, shaggy dark beard and all.  They travel all over keeping an era alive.

Quite a weekend which included the premier of the opera, which we look forward to seeing later in the season.

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