MADRID - When Annie Proulx published "Brokeback Mountain" in The New Yorker magazine in 1997, she had no inkling the tragic cowboy love story would go on to inspire an Oscar-winning film and even an opera.
The original short story took the American writer more than a year of thinking and six weeks of writing, at the end of which Proulx thought "her involvement with the story had finished," she told Reuters.
American composer Charles Wuorinen saw the operatic potential of the doomed romance between two Wyoming sheep herders, however, and asked Proulx to write the libretto.
"The story embodies a contemporary version of an eternal and universal human problem: Two people who are in love but who can't get it together, who can't make it work," Wuorinen, 75, said before a dress rehearsal in the run-up to the opera's world premiere in Madrid on Tuesday.
"The story is fraught, and has the kind of immediacy that makes it ideally suited for an operatic treatment. It's not an ideological piece ... It's just a piece about a universal human problem which doesn't get resolved," he said.
Wuorinen, known for his complex 12-tone music, proposed the piece to Gerard Mortier, who brought the project with him to Madrid's Teatro Real opera house.
Proulx wrote the libretto in close coordination with Wuorinen, who won a Pulitzer prize in 1970 for the electronic music piece "Time's Encomium".
His score uses a wide range of instruments to invoke the sounds of exhilaration, longing and frustration in the backdrop of wind and rain on Brokeback Mountain.
"For me it was wonderful to have the space. The opera has much more room for exposition and character growth. The story enlarged and gained a layer of depth," said Proulx, who finished the libretto in 2008, soon after it was commissioned.
Mortier had planned the piece for the now defunct New York City Opera and had to wait until his stewardship of the Teatro Real in 2010 before finding a home for it in the programming.
Bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch drew on his experience growing up in a Western-style town in Canada to give voice to the character of Ennis del Mar, the introverted, impassive cowboy played by the late Heath Ledger on the big screen.
"There were so many magnificent things about Heath Ledger's performance but at the same time it would be limiting to me to try to recreate what he did," Okulitch said in a rehearsal room with sweeping views of tiled rooftops in central Madrid.
"Cinema is a totally different form ... an actor has the luxury of communicating a thought with a glance, whereas on the operatic stage we have to sing about our emotions and can't just rely on the raise of an eyebrow," he said.
One of the main differences in the opera version is the depth of the female characters, particularly Ennis's wife Alma, who sings out against sexist ranch life.
Hollywood-born tenor Tom Randle, who plays the impulsive Jack Twist, has not seen Ang Lee's critically acclaimed film version of Brokeback Mountain.
"I meant to do it a long time ago and just never got around to it and when I was asked to do this role, I made a decision not to. This is a new piece, a new medium," Randle said.
The showing at the Teatro Real through February 11 is alternating with the staging of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, another tragic love story.
"I think it's terribly important to have something remaining in our world that involves a live, breathing audience and live actors and singers and live music," said Proulx, 78.
"All of these things are becoming more and more rare. Opera is precious, so I'm tremendously pleased to have this story turned into the finest expression that we have left to us in emotions and storytelling."