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Jennifer Higdon’s 2015 Opera, Cold Mountain, Surpasses the 1997 Novel and the 2003 Film

Melinda Whittington and Edward Parks star as Ada and Inman in <em>Cold Mountain</em> (photo by Eric Waters)

Melinda Whittington and Edward Parks star as Ada and Inman in Cold Mountain (photo by Eric Waters)

We love opera. The larger-than-life voices, the costumes, and the stories. When we go to the opera, we expect a certain amount of grandeur. Yet, even with these high expectations, when we walked into Memorial Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and first laid eyes on the stage, we were both stunned. Scenic designer Robert Brill set for Carolina Performing Arts and the North Carolina Opera’s production of Cold Mountain is simply awe-inspiring. Massive broken beams jutted and jumbled, filling the entire stage.

Brian Nason’s lighting implied winter, or bleakness, or a void. It is the chaos of war, the fallout, the cannon-fire, the shells of buildings laid out before us.

There were no announcements. There were no preshow instructions. The show started with a slow dimming of the lights and two bedraggled men picking their way through the rubble to start digging a hole. It was a reverent beginning.

Jay Hunter Morris as Teague confronts Emily Fons as Ruby in <em>Cold Mountain</em> in UNC's Memorial Hall (photo by Eric Waters)

Jay Hunter Morris as Teague confronts Emily Fons as Ruby in Cold Mountain in UNC’s Memorial Hall (photo by Eric Waters)

Enter Teague (Jay Hunter Morris). He is strong and has an insidious confidence. On the outside, he is friendly; but the men digging know that he is a snake waiting to strike. Teague is a local man, a Confederate soldier tasked with finding and delivering some rough justice to soldiers who have abandoned their posts.

This is the case for Inman (Edward Parks), who won the heart of Ada (Melinda Whittington) prior to going off to war. It’s 1864 in Raleigh. Like many as the war dragged on, Inman was tired of fighting; and he decided to quit the war and make his way through the mountains back home.

Danger lurks everywhere. There is a bounty on the head of any deserter. One false turn, and Inman could find himself back at the front line or simply shot for having abandoned his post.

For her part, Ada is scraping by, fending off hunger, looters, and soldiers. That is, until a rough-and-tumble mountain girl, Ruby (Emily Fons), comes to help and teach her how to live from the land. Everyone is scraping to get by.

Emily Fons is amazing as Ruby in Jennifer Higdon's <em>Cold Mountain</em> (photo by Eric Waters)

Emily Fons is amazing as Ruby in Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain (photo by Eric Waters)

The stage is used to stunning effect. The actors must make their way across lumber and rubble to cross the stage, but there was nary a stumble or pause amongst the bunch. Through the magic of Brian Nason’s lighting, the audience is transported from a Christmas party, to a cabin on a hill, to a battle, gunshots and all. In fact, the action surrounds us all, as small lights become stars twinkling in the night sky, or snow, or drops of hope.

As we flashback through Inman and Ada’s first meeting, then courtship, and return to the bleak present, Ada and Inman easily move between the glow of infatuation and the hope of seeing one another once more. Their shyness and hope is palpable.

Emily Fons as Ruby is amazing. Her portrayal of a woman with an inner strength and good heart stole the show. You haven’t lived until you hear an opera sung in English with a Southern drawl. Such was the level of detail in this shining production.

The lyrics by Gene Scheer and music by Jennifer Higdon made the audience laugh and cry. They made the opera accessible to all. Speaking of accessible, the show was also being audio-described for the blind and visually impaired by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh.

Edward Parks and Melinda Whittington star Inman and Ada in <em>Cold Mountain</em> (photo by Eric Waters)

Edward Parks and Melinda Whittington star Inman and Ada in Cold Mountain (photo by Eric Waters)

The costumes by David Woolard were spot on for the period, for folks struggling through the war, with ill-fitting lace boots (sometimes because they were stolen from a dead soldier by necessity), thread-bare aprons, and bedraggled jackets for all. And the live music from the symphony was terrific. They found ways to produce the wild sounds of the woods and of war.

This is a story told in the mountains of North Carolina, so it is a local story, but it is a story with universal appeal. The insanity of war, finding and losing and love, how life changes us all, how we all must struggle — these are universal themes. Even more wonderfully for the audience, the whole story is written and sung in English, with supertitles displayed above.

For those of you familiar with our Department of Picky-Picky, it was closed for the evening.

Most people are familiar with Charles Frazier’s novel, which won the 1997 National Book Award for Fiction, and Miramax’s 2003 blockbuster film of Cold Mountain, starring Renée Zellweger, Jude Law, and Nicole Kidman. In our humble opinion, this production of Cold Mountain, directed by Keturah Stickann, surpasses them all.

SECOND OPINION: Oct. 1st Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 2.5 of 5 stars): and Sept. 27th mini-preview by Brian Howe:; Sept. 29th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks:, Sept. 24th preview by Roy C. Dicks:, and April 20th preview by Roy C. Dicks:; Sept. 22nd Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with composer Jennifer Higdon, soprano Melinda Whittington, and baritone Edward Parks, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”:; Sept. 1st Raleigh, NC Walter Magazine preview by Jessie Ammons:

Carolina Performing Arts and the North Carolina Opera present Higdon’s COLD MOUNTAIN at 2 p.m. Oct. 1 at Memorial Hall, 114 E. Cameron Ave., Chapel Hill, NC 27514 on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $99-$119, except $10 UNC students and faculty/staff.

BOX OFFICE: 919-843-3333 or

GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-843-3333, or

SHOW:,, and



Carolina Performing Arts:,,, and

North Carolina Opera:,, and




Cold Mountain (1997 novel): (Grove Atlantic) and (Wikipedia).

The Novel: (Google Books).

Charles Frazier (Asheville, NC-born novelist): (NCpedia bio by T. Mike Childs), (Facebook page), (Twitter page), and (Wikipedia).

Cold Mountain (2015 opera, co-commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and the Minnesota Opera, in collaboration with the North Carolina Opera): (Jennifer Higdon’s web page), (Gene Scheer’s web page), and (Wikipedia).

Jennifer Higdon (Brooklyn, NY-born composer): (official website) and (Wikipedia).

Gene Scheer (New York City-born librettist): (official website) and (Wikipedia).

Keturah Stickann (Brooklyn, NY-based director and choreographer): (official website), (North Carolina Opera bio), (Internet Movie Database), and (Twitter page).


Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews