A Night at the Opera with an Arizonan Twist

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By Riley Hoffman

Following a true Wild West adventure, Riders of the Purple Sage is an adapted opera composition from the 1912 best-selling novel by Zane Grey. The major themes from the novel are still heated topics in today’s society: women’s independence, the right to bear arms, and an abuse of power, to name a few.

The story is what made Billie Jo and Judd Herberger, long-time Valley philanthropists and supporters of the Arizona art scene, fall in love with the show and sign on as executive producers alongside co-producer Kristin Atwell Ford.

“Riders of the Purple Sage is a classic boy-girl cattle-ranching Arizona story,” said Billie Jo. “Judd and I are very excited and feel that this opera is going touch the world.” She explained how this opera and the way it showcases Arizona’s heritage is unique, and that’s what makes it so special.

With stunning backdrops that can be considered characters themselves, Phoenix native Ed Mell is displaying his artwork on a large scale for the first time in his career. Hand painting each backdrop, the mesas and mountains fill the stage with danger, excitement and beauty in a mixture of colors and depth. An opera telling the story of typical Arizonan life wouldn’t be complete without beautiful sunsets in the background.

“I am always looking for something that ‘sings’ and that can be adapted for the stage,” said Craig Bohmler, composer of Riders of the Purple Sage. “‘Riders’ has a perfect opera plot – young lovers, older lovers, vigilante justice and a contemporary sensibility all taking place in a glorious landscape.”

After reading only 30 pages of the 1912 novel, Bohmler knew he had to turn this classic into an opera masterpiece. With the novel selling more than two million copies, being translated into over 20 languages and adapted into five major motion pictures, it was only fitting that an opera be written next. This is Bohmler’s fourth opera in his long career as a composer.

The beauty of Arizona being the inspiration behind Riders came as no surprise to Bohmler. “It is a story that all Arizonans can relate to because it speaks of a land that we all love and celebrate,” he said. “Ed Mell is Arizona’s own landscape artist, and his work extends to national prominence. We all recognize our land in his work and will see it in his set design for the opera. I live in Scottsdale, and have endeavored to capture this grandness in music.”

Over four years in the making and with the full utilization of Arizona talent, Riders of the Purple Sage makes its worldwide debut. “It is exhilarating and humbling to see the large and passionate staff working to bring great artistry to this very large grand opera. As each element gets added the excitement mounts. Arizona Opera has been one of the finest companies I have worked with and I am honored to have had this association,” said Bohmler.

Riders of the Purple Sage had its Tucson premier February 25-26. It will play in Phoenix at the Arizona Opera March 3-5. For more, visit azopera.org/performances/riders-purple-sage.


Riley Hoffman is a Southern California native who has always been passionate about living a sustainable lifestyle and helping educate others to do so. Her most important personal focus is joining the fight to replace the use of fossil fuels with renewable energy around the world.

Photo by Tim Trumble.

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