Making ‘Two Yosemites’

Oregon composer/naturalist Justin Ralls combines advocacy for wilderness and passion for music in new environmental chamber opera

By GARY FERRINGTON

Editor’s note: ArtsWatch is covering this month’s premiere of Oregon composer Justin Ralls’s new opera Two Yosemites with three stories. This one traces the opera’s evolution from college idea to full production. Stay tuned for profiles of Ralls and singer Nicholas Meyer.

Decisions shaping our nation’s future don’t always originate in the halls of Congress. They can emerge from conversations over a campfire, as happened in 1903 when President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir shared their common passions and differing viewpoints on the future of America’s wilderness while on a three-day trek through California’s spectacular Yosemite Valley.

Justin Ralls learned about that fateful encounter when he was studying at Boston Conservatory, and saw Ken Burns’s National Parks, the PBS documentary about Sierra Club founder Muir and the legacy of public lands and parks in American history. One other element stood out. “The addition of Teddy Roosevelt into the story was even more captivating.” Ralls told ArtsWatch. The two dynamic figures of the American conservation movement “agree on the moral and spiritual necessities of conservation but diverge on philosophical, utilitarian, and political grounds,” Ralls notes.

John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt at Glacier Point, 1903. Photo: National Park Service

Muir, the passionate environmental philosopher, strove to protect America’s lands and wildlife from the exploitative impulses of late 19th and early 20th century. President Roosevelt, cognizant of a growing nation’s need for resources, grappled with pressure from commercial interests in conserving wild lands for development.

The Muir-Roosevelt meeting clicked with Ralls as an idea for an opera in which he could combine his “passion for American history, as well as the environment, into a dramatic, mythic, musical story and landscape.”

Now, almost seven years later, his Two Yosemites: An Environmental Chamber Opera premieres this weekend in Portland. This is the story of how the show evolved from idea to fully realized opera.

Ralls, who grew up in Portland, applied to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for graduate study because he knew the city was Muir’s town in many ways as well as a place you could see “a world class opera and Yosemite National Park in a single day.”

Lee Stetson (center) with Ralls and Meyer at Yosemite Theater. Photo: Anne Polyakov.

When Ralls started his master’s program in 2012, he asked actor/writer and Muir interpreter Lee Stetson if he could use his play The Tramp and the Roughrider about Muir and Roosevelt’s camping trip as a point of departure. “He graciously replied sending me two of his plays and good luck on the adventure of turning this story into an opera.”

Ralls also read biographies of Muir and Roosevelt as well as their letters, writings, and speeches. He compressed his initial 42-page libretto to twelve pages over twenty drafts and presented “act one” of the opera as his master’s thesis at San Francisco Conservatory in May 2014.

Reid Pierre Delahunt (bari-tenor) as Theodore Roosevelt and Christian Pursell (baritone) as John Muir. Chorus: Emma Rosenthal and Ellen Leslie (sopranos).

That fall, Ralls began doctoral degree studies in composition with Dr. Robert Kyr at the University of Oregon. Between schoolwork and composition commissions, he pondered how to “answer the looming questions still to be hashed out: how to create a satisfying dramatic arc from a two-man, one-scene docudrama?”

Kyr helped Ralls focus on the craft Kyr calls ‘text for music,” asking students to attentively listen to and considered all aspects of an opera from orchestration to text setting, to larger questions of voice and the archetype of the story. All UO composition students interested in opera meet in sessions with Kyr, re-writing and acting out scenes of their favorite operas.

When Ralls returned to his opera, completing his “first final draft” in the spring/summer of 2015, he found himself deeply inspired by Robert Kyr’s A Time for Life, “with its composite text from multiple sources, as well as dramatic spiritual arc of transformation.” The question of how to create a satisfying dramatic arc for his opera began to be answered. By the end of that first year Ralls says, he was a “different composer and human being who had finally found the story behind the story of the Muir and Roosevelt meeting.”

Mythologizing the Landscape

For Ralls, the composer/naturalist, writing of this opera has been a culmination of sustained interests, ideas, and passions over the years in which he has sought to combine history, conservation, music, drama and myth together in the telling of his story. Two Yosemites is not just about two men having a conversation around a campfire.

Justin Ralls.

“Dramatically, the evening is an archetypal story of transformation of consciousness in real time,” Ralls explains. “I conceived the drama in mythic terms: our hero, our tenor Theodore Roosevelt, departs for the wilderness, and chooses as his guide a wise man of the woods, the shamanic and ecstatic figure of John Muir. They swoon, they quarrel, and in the end are changed by their meeting. My lofty goal with this opera is to mythologize the landscape – making us conscious of our history, our environment, and the magical places where new potentialities take place.”

In the opera, the two titans debate preservation of American wilderness areas such as Yosemite’s great valley and its ancient trees as national reserves. In these intense campfire conversations, Muir impresses upon Roosevelt that conservation of wilderness has moral, cultural, and spiritual dimensions. Ralls wove those philosophical discussions and shared values about nature through his opera’s libretto.

After his encounter with Muir, Ralls notes, the President’s speeches and policies begin to change. Roosevelt’s resulting legacy of more than 20 National Parks and Monuments constitutes “a Presidential record of conservation that has still yet to be matched.”

This journey of departure-transformation-return provides a “fertile ground for opera – a genre, which at its best, concerns itself with myth and the exploration of momentous questions,” Ralls observes and for which be believes contemporary opera is well suited.

From Story to Stage 

Addressing contemporary issues and writing music and libretto are only the beginning. The next challenge is finding the right creative team and network to bring a project like this to life, Ralls told ArtsWatch. “Composers, by their nature, have to be myopic in their creative vision. Yet, this doesn’t translate well when you are producing theater — which takes a village.”

Ralls notes that he has been very fortunate to have the support and talents of a life-long friend, baritone Nicholas Meyer, who has taken on not only the role of John Muir, but practically every other administrative and creative function. “I’ve learned by doing that the work truly is larger than yourself,” Meyer says, “and once you invite other people to discover and take agency the momentum of producing opera really begins.” (Stay tuned for ArtsWatch’s profile of Meyer.)

Opera Theater Oregon Solstice Soirée benefit for ‘Two Yosemites.’ Photo: OTO Theresa Hagerty

“Funding, funding, funding” is critical, Ralls told ArtsWatch. Although Two Yosemites could be an relatively inexpensive production for any major opera company to stage, “when you are self-producing, or working with a small regional company such as Opera Theater Oregon, that you have to watch every cent and nothing is taken for granted.” With an estimated $25,000 budget for the Portland production, Ralls and company have had to rely on multiple sources of funding, from grants and corporate sponsors to individual donors.

A Kickstarter fundraising drive for a preview recital last September at Portland’s Old Church provided the “opportunity to start building  an audience and community support around the piece.” Baritone Nicholas Meyer performed a set of Schubert art songs inspired by nature and was then joined by tenor Dan Buchanan to perform excerpts from Two Yosemites. Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director at Portland Audubon, gave a talk on the Oregon connection to President Roosevelt’s tour of the West. Sallinger observed that the Roosevelt 1903 trip included a meeting with Portland Audubon founder William Finley that resulted in the eventual forming of Three Arch Rock and Malheur Wildlife Refuges.

World Premieres: Portland and Yosemite

Opera Theater Oregon’s production of Two Yosemites: An Environmental Chamber Opera features Nicholas Meyer as John Muir and Aaron Short as Theodore Roosevelt. Justin Ralls will conduct a 12 member orchestra and four-woman chorus with the same instrumentation as Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, minus keyboard, in both indoor (September 8) and outdoor (September 15-16) performances at Lewis & Clark College.

The Portland premiere is, in some ways, a preview of the “big show” to take place in Yosemite National Park, Ralls notes. While he can’t discuss details, “Yosemite National Park supports the project and we are in talks with a California opera company to produce the opera in summer, 2018,” he says. “It has always been my dream to see Two Yosemites performed at the amphitheater at Glacier Point, overlooking the valley and Half-Dome, where Muir and Roosevelt actually met and camped. I think it’s safe to say Yosemite could be the largest, pro-bono opera set in history.”

September 14, 2016 ‘Two Yosemites’ preview recital: an evening of storytelling, music, and nature. The Old Church Concert Hall, Portland.

Two Yosemites’ indoor premiere is at 7:30 pm on Friday, September 8 in Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel. General Admission: $20.

Outdoor productions will take place at 7pm on September 15 and 16 in the Lewis and Clark College Law School Amphitheater. Suggested donation $15. Tickets online at Opera Theater Oregon. View promotional trailer.

Editor’s note: Justin Ralls is one of three recent graduate students of the University of Oregon composition program who have undertaken opera projects. These include Ethan Gans-Morse (Canticle of the Black Madonna) and Daniel Daly (The Banshee). Read more:
Bringing Anima Mundi’s opera “Canticle of the Black Madonna” to life
Composer Ethan Gans-Morse: Music as Social Voice
“The Banshee” preview: A new opera by Daniel Daly

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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