Teri Vance: Nevada’s history to hit the stage
Former Nevada Appeal writer (you know I like to highlight successes of former reporters — it gives me hope) Jon Christensen has written a historical account of the Silver State. And set it to music.
Working with award-winning composer Monica Houghton, who was raised in Nevada, Christensen wrote the libretto for “The Big Bonanza,” a new American opera that will have its world premiere at the Nevada Chamber Opera in Reno on April 8.
Based in part on the life and writings of William Wright, aka “Dan De Quille,” friend and mentor to Mark Twain on the Territorial Enterprise in the glory days of the Comstock Lode, Christensen said the story has a familiar ring.
“The story of ‘The Big Bonanza’ could have been ripped from today’s headlines,” he said in an email. “Boom and bust. Common dreams broken in bets placed by Wall Street financiers and high rollers. True believers and skeptics.
“This might sound like the 2016 Oscar-nominated movie ‘The Big Short.’ But it’s set in Virginia City, Nevada. And the story begins more than 150 years ago.”
Christensen, now a historian at UCLA, said he has been working on the opera for 15 years — he started writing the libretto while living in Nevada and working as a journalist for The New York Times and others
The opera had a reading in 2008 at the Cleveland Institute of Music. The composition, by Monica Houghton, won the Boston Metro Opera’s 2010 New Music New England Concert Award.
Scenes from the opera will also be presented at the historic Piper’s Opera House — where the characters at the center of the opera, Mark Twain and Dan De Quille, watched performances in the 1860s — on April 2 in a fundraiser to restore the theater.
“‘The Big Bonanza’ represents Nevada Chamber Opera’s largest undertaking to date,” said Albert R. Lee, company director and assistant professor of voice and opera with the University of Nevada’s School of the Arts, in a press release. “Our fully staged operas up until now have always been one-act operas about an hour in length. Additionally, this is the first time that the Nevada Chamber Opera is producing a world premiere.”
The opera follows De Quille’s mining investment failure, death of a female friend and disappointment because of the lack of success with his book compared to Twain, which sends him into a downward spiral of alcohol and opium.
“I looked back at Dan De Quille and Mark Twain for inspiration in my own work as a journalist,” Christensen said. “What surprised me was how much that history rhymed with what was happening around us as we worked on the opera.”
The idea to write a new American opera focused on the Western landscape and the experiences of a real Western American inspired Houghton to go back to school to get a master’s in music composition from the Cleveland Institute of Music.
“Growing up in Reno, I spent a lot of time outdoors,” she said.
“The desert, the weather, the beauty and ruggedness of the land became part of me. Those things have fed my artistic sensibilities over the years.”