Birthing ‘Bullets & Steel’
Cowgirl Opera takes to the Durango Arts Center stage

Members of the cast of “Twenty-Four Pounds of Bullets and Steel” strike a pose during a Monday dress rehearsal. The “Cowgirl Opera” is the culmination of two decades of writing, composing and pondering by local playwright, John Thomas. The play opens for two weekends at the Durango Arts Center this Friday./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Anna Thomas

An opera? In Durango? About cowgirls? When you think about it, of course it makes perfect sense. What better backdrop than a town with a Wild West past, a reputation for strong women, and a burgeoning community theater scene?

The opera, “Twenty-Four Pounds of Bullets and Steel: A Cowgirl Opera” began life 20 years ago as a song. Actually, it began as a photograph.

“Cowgirl” composer John Thomas is a local jack of all trades. He has held the title of high school rock star, film producer, solar carpenter, painter, waiter, songwriter, Fort Lewis College professor, and owner of the Durango Kid store.

While Thomas claims a “complete absence of ambition” in bringing the opera to fruition, it is clear that this man has achieved what he has through sheer force of personality, coupled with an equally irrepressible artistic vision.

Thomas is one of those guys who entertains everyone around him, including himself. His eyes crackle with silent laughter, and you can’t help but feel that, by just being in his presence, you are privy to some great private joke of his.

He has an answer for everything, and right away. When asked if it was difficult to tell an hour-long story solely through song, he said, without skipping a beat, “I don’t know how to do anything else.”

It was 20 years ago that, with the help of longtime friend Tami Graham, who is producing the opera, Thomas rounded up several local women, some boots and chaps, and snapped off some photos. Old-timey and iconic, these sepia-toned images of cowgirls became Thomas’ source of inspiration for what would become the title song of the opera. Over the course of 10 years, Thomas amassed a series of Old West-genre songs, drawing on personal experiences of love and loss.

Graham, who Thomas affectionately calls the “underground mayor,” is a compact ball of ambition to match Thomas’ self-professed lack thereof. She has produced numerous concerts and events, bringing to our neck of the woods such world-class artists as Greg Brown, Bruce Cockburn and Michael Franti. Her first foray into stage production was as producer and emcee of the Salt Fire Circus.

It was Graham who, about a year ago, finally spurred Thomas into action. Together, Thomas said, they decided the opera “had to happen.”

And so it came to be that a decade’s worth of songs coalesced into what Graham terms a “folk opera.”

“Opera has been called the most complicated art form,” Thomas said. “Music, libretto, theatrical design, dancing – all this is happening at the same time, without stopping.”

“Twenty-Four Pounds” combines libretto, an industry term for the text, or lyrics, of a musical work, with recitative, which allows the singer to utilize the rhythms of ordinary speech, to deliver the story.

And what a story. Think “Romeo4 and Juliet” with dusters and six-shooters instead of tights and rapiers. And while you’re at it, supersize it: twice the carnage in half the time. The show wastes no time on touchy feely character development. Heck, the characters don’t even have names.

“They are archetypical characters,” said Graham of such roles as the Son of the Old Outlaw and the Hangin’ Judge’s Daughter.

As such, “Twenty-Four Pounds” draws on certain elements of melodrama. While a true melodrama relies on a musical accompaniment to identify a character, such as triumphant trumpeting heralding the hero’s entrance, the opera contains meticulously crafted lyrics jam-packed with, well, information.

Like the Daughter of the Old Outlaw explaining her wardrobe change: “Men don’t draw on women in the Wild, Wild West; so I’ll make up like a cowboy, put away my dress.” This so (you might want to take notes here) she can draw the Old Outlaw, her father, into a gunfight in retribution for his killing of her man, the Hangin’ Judge’s Son, whose father, the Hangin’ Judge, hung the Brother of the Old Outlaw for ... well, you get the idea.

In short, you’d better be paying attention. Answer a text message in the middle of a verse and you might miss a couple of years, or the lynchin’ of somebody’s father.

“That’s the fun part,” mused Thomas. “It’s just insanely complicated!”

As for creating an opera from scratch over the course of two decades, with all its loose ends and unforeseen obstacles, Graham likens it to a child. “It’s like giving birth to something,” she said. “You have to have faith that you will nurture it, and it will turn out OK.”

The timing is just right for a show like this, said Thomas. “I have always lived in the coolest towns at the best times,” he said. San Francisco in 1968. Santa Fe in the ’70s. Hard to argue with him.

Thomas and Graham both feel that Durango is ready and willing to cultivate a community theater scene, pointing out that the depressed economy has caused a flourishing of artistic expression.

“Look at burlesque,” said Graham, who also is producing this year’s Salt Fire Circus. “It developed in Europe in the 1800s as a parody of nobility,” she explained, citing the contemporary economic and political issues as the driving force behind the need for entertainment.

As is the nature of community productions, most of the cast members have their fingers in a lot of other pies. Rachel Pollack, who plays the role of the heroine as the Hangin’ Judge’s Daughter, crafts her powerful, stunning vocals as a music major at the Fort. Brady Wilson, the Son of the Old Outlaw, moonlights as the lead singer of a reggae band at regional music festivals. And Susan Coulter, on stand-up bass, started the Wednesday night bluegrass jam at Durango Brewing Co.

The show is not all murder and mayhem. Which is to say, not everyone dies. “It could be a tragedy,” said Thomas, “But it’s actually an epic, because the heroine survives to tell the story.”

In the end, redemption comes for the heroine not in the form of vengeance, but a 20-20 hindsight of remorse and grief, a morality tale for the audience. In the immortal words of a certain Elizabethan poet, “For never was there a tale of more woe than that of the Hangin’ Judge’s Daughter and her Romeo.” •



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