Opera Profile: Jennifer Higdon & Gene Scheer’s ‘Cold Mountain’

By David Salazar
(Credit: Ken Howard / Santa Fe Opera)

“Cold Mountain” is a groundbreaking retelling of the popular 1997 Charles Frazier novel of the same name. American composer Jennifer Higdon wrote the opera to mark the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.

It premiered at the Santa Fe Opera on August 1, 2015, with subsequent showings at the Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera.

Originally planned for the San Francisco Opera, Higdon worked in close partnership with librettist Gene Scheer beginning in 2009. Together, the two worked to create an adaptation that closely mirrored the novel. Higdon, originally from Appalachia, infused the music and text of the piece with personal knowledge of music from the South. The original cast featured Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard, Emily Fons, and Jay Hunter Morris, with Miguel Harth-Bedoya in the pit.

“Cold Mountain” was an instant success in Santa Fe. In Philadelphia, the opera was revised slightly and included as part of the company’s “American Repertoire Program” as part of a commitment to stage contemporary American works.

A recording of “Cold Mountain” was nominated for two Grammy awards and received an award at London’s International Opera Awards.

Short Plot Summary

The action takes place during the American Civil War, specifically, 1865. The opera centers around the character of W.P. Inman, a Confederate deserter on an illegal journey home to North Carolina.

Meanwhile, Ada Monroe, the love of his life, awaits his return after falling into a life of poverty. Inman is captured by the Home Guard, the Confederates who find and arrest deserters. Inman ignites an insurrection amongst the other arrested deserters, and all are killed.

As Act Two begins, Inman is revealed to have been the only survivor of the attack. On his journey, Inman meets Sara, a war widow, and her baby, who grow to trust each other. Ada and Inman finally find each other on the night before the Home Guard returns to kill Inman. In an epilogue nine years later, Ada is widowed on her farm living with their child.


The music of “Cold Mountain” is framed around a men’s chorus, featuring the voices of the Home Guard, the Confederate deserters, and the deceased. This is reflected in pieces such as “Our Beautiful Country” or “What Was His Name.” The chorus and ensemble also perform the piece “Tell Her” toward the conclusion of the second act.

Other notable pieces include Ada’s aria, “I Feel Sorry for You,” the Home Guard leader’s “Peaches in the Summertime,” and Inman’s piece “The Storm.”

Watch & Listen 

Here are some excerpts from the work. Nathan Gunn performs “The Storm.”

The Chorus performs “Tell Her.”

 Isabel Leonard performs “I Feel Sorry for You.”


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