As collaborators, Murray Boren and Glen Nelson have written a number of works together, from song cycles to cantatas and operas. And 15 years and nearly a dozen works later, they're still eager to continue their partnership.
In fact, they've already begun work on a couple of new projects.
"I love collaborations," Nelson said by phone from his home in Manhattan. "I'm surprised at how few do it."
Their latest joint endeavor is the opera "The Book of Gold," based on the life of Joseph Smith, which will receive its world premiere next weekend at Brigham Young University.
Singing the leads on the opening-night performance Friday are Metropolitan Opera stars Ariel Bybee, as Lucy Mack Smith, and Jennifer Welch-Babidge, as Emma Smith. Taking on the role of Joseph Smith is British baritone Darrell Babidge, who has performed with the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, the London Philharmonic and the Halle Orchestra. They will also appear in Wednesday's dress rehearsal and in performances on Nov. 10 and 12. A student cast will sing in Thursday's dress rehearsal and on Nov. 5, 9 and 11.
Boren, interviewed in BYU's de Jong Concert Hall before a rehearsal, said he had the three singers in mind while working on the score. "The roles were written specifically for these three. And I pushed the school to bring them in."
All three have busy schedules and had to juggle commitments to be able to come to Provo. "I've known them for a long time," Boren said. "I think it was a friendship issue with them."
"The Book of Gold" is set in the years 1828-30 and chronicles a pivotal period in Smith's life. It was during this time that he began translating the Book of Mormon and also gradually transformed from a young man to a prophet. "Influences are important to me," Nelson said. "The opera is about how and why this change was made. I wanted to show how Joseph changed from profiteer to prophet."
The opera evolved slowly. Boren and Nelson first tossed some ideas around for an opera based on Smith's life about five years ago. Originally, it was intended to depict Smith's life in Nauvoo and end with his martyrdom. However, neither was convinced that they could make it succeed. Yet both wanted to write something on his life. "Murray once told me that he wanted to do a Joseph opera, even if no one will play it," Nelson said.
Eventually, Nelson realized that focusing on Smith as a young man would have the elements to turn historical events into a successful stage work.
"The story seemed to be a concise action story," said Boren. "It's not about death but about a young farm boy turning into a prophet."
But Boren cautioned that one shouldn't expect a "warm-and-fuzzy" story. There is also a dark side. "The opera has an edge to it. It's pretty assertive, and it gets intense at times."
Musically, the work is tonal and divided into arias and ensembles. When he discussed the music with Boren, Nelson said he envisioned a distinctive sound. "I really wanted an American sound," Nelson said, "but I don't know what that means. The one thing I did know was that I didn't want the open fifths that you find in Copland's music."
"It sounds like my music," said Boren. "It's diatonic in that it's got key centers. It's not atonal at all, although there are dissonances in it. I think it has a friendly sound. I'm very pleased with it."
The singers, too, are delighted with the music Boren wrote for them. "It reminds me of Benjamin Britten," Babidge said. "I'm really excited to sing it."
Bybee admitted that the music is difficult. "It's challenging, but it has a lot of exciting colors and interesting sounds. There is some real beauty in it. The prayer I sing at the beginning is an absolute jewel."
The three agree that the characters aren't operatic at all. They are real and fully fleshed out in the words and music. "They are as real as people can be," Welch-Babidge said. "It's fun to delve into these characters and put ourselves in their shoes and be a part of history."
Nelson said the story that unfolds onstage is historically accurate. He did quite a bit of research before beginning work on the libretto. "Every action in the opera is historically true and based on historical record."
The language used in the opera also reflects the period. "I immersed myself in a fair amount of reading to get a sense of how people spoke at the time," Nelson said.
Both Nelson and Boren want "The Book of Gold" to be judged on its artistic merits and not as an LDS opera.
"We don't go out of our way to say that this is the truth," Nelson said, "and that if you don't believe it you're heretical."
"This isn't theological," Boren said. "It's a piece of art. It's opera. But don't expect it to be heresy.
"I want people to judge it as a theatrical piece. I want it to be a fun experience. I hope people will enjoy it and leave the theater saying, 'Wow! That's good.' "
What: "The Book of Gold"
Where: De Jong Concert Hall, Harris Fine Arts Center, Brigham Young University, Provo
When: Friday and Saturday, and Nov. 9-12, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $14, $10 students
What: "The Book of Gold" dress rehearsals
When: Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
E-mail: [email protected]