Article Last Updated: 10/29/2005 04:37 PM
Opera aims for an honest portrait of Joseph Smith
By Jennifer Barrett
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
Glen Nelson and Murray Boren wanted to write an opera about Joseph
Smith, but they weren't interested in presenting a portrait of the LDS
Church founder as polished and perfect and larger than life. They
wanted to show him as an ordinary man to whom extraordinary things
Boren hopes they have succeeded, even to the extent that "The Book
of Gold" would appeal to people who don't belong to The Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"We're just telling a story, not making it a Mormon story any more
than Joan of Arc is a Catholic story. You don't have to believe in her
visions to enjoy it," said Boren, who composed the music for the
"The Book of Gold" will make its world premiere this week at
Brigham Young University. It is part of a series of events marking the
200th anniversary of Smith's birth.
Nelson said the creators had to skirt common pitfalls in creating the op=
It's difficult to write about a historical figure, said Nelson, who
wrote the libretto. "To humanize the main character, you either
contemporize him . . . or you show all his failings, sort of bring him
down to size," he said. "Those are both big mistakes. You pull the rug
out from under the audience."
The other danger is turning the character into some kind of cartoon
hero, a complaint Nelson has with many works of Mormon art.
Instead of venerating Smith as the man LDS faithful call a prophet,
seer and revelator, Nelson and Boren focused on Smith during the years
1827-30 when he was a young newlywed who made his living as a laborer,
had trouble with his in-laws, lived with his parents and lost a child.
"There aren't any angels in this production," said Nelson, even
though the story covers the period of time just after Smith said he
was visited by an angel and given the golden plates that, when
translated, would become The Book of Mormon.
Nelson, a New York-based author of three operas who grew up on a
farm outside Cedar City, says he found ways to relate to Joseph Smith
while doing research.
At about the same time, Nelson's 7-year-old daughter underwent
surgery for a brain tumor. The surgery went well, but she later
developed complications. She's fine now, but the experience gave him
an idea of the pain Smith must have felt at losing a son.
In the span of just a few days, "everything is taken from him,"
said Nelson. His son dies just after birth, his wife, Emma, is at
death's door, and several pages from his translation have been lost.
In one aria, Smith destroys the cradle he had built for his now-dead
son and turns it into a metaphorical box for his grief.
If the characters are honest and can touch people, said Nelson, the
work doesn't need to be sentimental or sanitized or "faith-promoting."
Boren said his goal in writing the music was to have the audience
come away "vibrating," unable to shake some feeling or impression
about the opera. "I would love people not to be able to ignore it," he
He describes the music as beautiful, not necessarily pretty. "I
think beautiful is a stronger thing that pretty, actually," said
Boren, composer in residence at BYU who has completed nine operas,
dozens of songs and choral works, and nearly 100 chamber compositions.
"There are moments of great beauty in this, but an austere beauty."
Nelson praised Boren for his ability to set language to music in a
natural way. "It's like glorious, extended speech."
"The Book of Gold" will be performed by a cast including veterans
of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Mezzo-soprano Ariel Bybee plays
Smith's mother, Lucy Mack Smith. Bybee sang more than 450 performances
at the Met and is now artist-in-residence at the University of
Nebraska-Lincoln. Soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge, who plays Smith's
wife, Emma, has drawn praise for her singing and acting at the Met,
Houston Grand Opera, Carnegie Hall and Utah Festival Opera. Her
husband, baritone Darrell Babidge, plays Joseph Smith. Babidge has
appeared at Carnegie Hall, with the Utah Festival Opera and the London
The opera is directed by Rodger Sorenson.
Contact Jennifer Barrett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8611.
Send comments about this story to livingeditor@sltrib .com.
"The Book of Gold" will be presented Friday and Saturday, as well
as Nov. 9-12, at 7:30 p.m. at the de Jong Concert Hall, Harris Fine
Arts Center, on the BYU campus in Provo. Ariel Bybee, Jennifer
Welch-Babidge and Darrell Babidge perform on Friday and Nov. 10 and
12, alternating with a student cast on other nights. A free lecture
will be Thursday at 11 a.m. in Madsen Recital Hall.
Tickets are $14, $10 with student ID, or $5 for balcony seats, and
are available by calling 801-422-4322.