The Operatic Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, September 15, 2016 - 02:48 PM

Statues, books and other ephemera about Ernest Hemingway are abundant in Ketchum, Idaho. Statues, books and other ephemera about Ernest Hemingway are abundant in Ketchum, Idaho. (Fred Plotkin)

KETCHUM, Idaho — We all speak of books that changed our life and have a short list that we speak of with grateful reverence. Mine include Don QuixoteCandide, the Aeneid, The Origin of Species, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the travel writing by Jan Morris. There are the memoirs of Berlioz and Rossini. One of my favorite books, the world atlas, has images as well as words and tends to go out of date all too quickly. My most treasured books, it seems, relate to travel and to the discovery of our astounding yet fragile world. To this I would add A Moveable Feast, the first book I read by Ernest Hemingway, a sort of nostalgic memoir rather than one of his great novels.

In my travels I have come to know the Ernest Hemingway of Paris, of Spain, of northeastern Italy and his home in Key West still populated with the six-toed cats who are the descendants of Papa’s felines. I hope to one day discover the Hemingway of Cuba. What had eluded me until now was Ketchum, Idaho, where the great author worked on For Whom the Bell TollsA Moveable FeastThe Dangerous SummerIslands in the StreamThe Garden of Eden and The Shot

I came to Ketchum under the auspices of the Sun Valley Opera to give lectures about opera, including one at The Community Library and another at an elementary school to 70 very bright youngsters. While here I have taken the time to walk in Hemingway’s footsteps. I went to his grave, surrounded by three tall evergreen trees, in the local cemetery where his wife Mary and sons Gregory and Jack are also interred. I saw his home on East Canyon Run from the outside (it is not open to visitors) which he purchased, furnished, in 1959 for $50,000. I also went to restaurants, bars, rivers and fishing areas such as Silver Creek that he frequented.

Hemingway first came here in 1939 at the invitation of the Sun Valley resort, which was built by the Union Pacific Railroad and opened in 1936 as a skiing destination near Ketchum. The term Sun Valley was coined because (according to the visitor’s center) there are 250 sunny days here each year, though not during my visit. Ketchum is 5,860 feet above sea level while the peak of Bald Mountain, near the resort, is at 9,150 feet. As part of a promotional campaign to attract visitors when the winter sports season concluded, the resort invited movie stars such as Lucille Ball, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable, as well as as well as Ernest Hemingway, who was known not only as a superb writer but an avid hunter and fisherman.    

One of Hemingway's typewriters sits on a shelf at Sun Valley resort's Hemingway Suite. 

In exchange for appearing in some promotional photographs, Hemingway was offered a two-year stay. He would divide those years between Idaho and his home in Finca Vigía in Cuba. In 1940, he came with his soon-to-be third wife Martha Gellhorn and his three sons. He stayed in room 206 of the lodge and worked mostly on For Whom the Bell Tolls

There is a theater at the resort called the Opera House, but like many buildings in small towns in the western United States, it is more an all-purpose theater with an emphasis on showing films. The 1941 film Sun Valley Serenade, with lots of skating, skiing and music by Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, can often be seen there. It too was a clever marketing tool by the resort. 

Hemingway returned to Idaho in 1946 with his fourth wife, Mary, staying in cabins in the area. After departing in 1948, they did not return until 1958 when Cuba was experiencing a revolution. Another motivation was the very dry air here. Hemingway was concerned that his papers and manuscripts would not survive the humidity in Cuba and saw Ketchum as the place where they should be kept.  

In the intervening years he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for The Old Man and the Sea and, the following year, the Nobel Prize for Literature. His health had declined, and he suffered from very deep depression. It was in Ketchum that Hemingway chose to end his life with a shotgun in the early hours of July 2, 1961.

Ernest Hemingway was buried in Ketchum, Idaho.

 As he did throughout his life, Hemingway wrote in the morning (usually standing at a tall desk), consuming a breakfast of marinated herring and beer. He fished and hunted in the afternoon and gambled on many evenings. He had little interest in celebrities but, as in Spain and Cuba, befriended local people. I went to restaurants and drinking establishments in Ketchum that Hemingway frequented, such as the Sawtooth Club, Whiskey Jacques (called the Alpine back then), the Christiania and the Casino, as well as ones such as the Pioneer Saloon that have Hemingway memorabilia.

Hunter S. Thompson (who, like Hemingway, killed himself with his gun), wrote of Papa's return to Idaho in his 1979 book The Great Shark Hunt

And in the end he came back to Ketchum, never ceasing to wonder why he hadn’t been killed years earlier in the midst of violent action on some other part of the globe. Here, at least he had mountains and a good river below his house; he could live among rugged non political people and visit, when he chose to, a few of his famous friends who still came up to Sun Valley. He could sit in the Sawtooth Club and talk with men who felt the same way he did about life, even if they were not so articulate. In this congenial atmosphere he felt he could get away from the pressures of a world gone mad and ‘write truly’ about life as he had in the past.

The Community Library, established in 1955, is my ideal of what such a place should be. In addition to an excellent collection, community educational programs, storytelling research facilities and a regional history department with documents, photographs and a shelf of Hemingway first editions. The specialist librarian, Mary Tyson, produced an oral history documentary with the voices of local people who knew the author. The library also operates the local history museum, which has a Hemingway collection. It was at the library and in two local independent booksellers, Iconoclast Books and Chapter One that I found a reverence for books and writers that I have seldom seen in most American towns. No doubt Hemingway’s presence here contributed to that.

The view from Ernest Hemingway's house in Ketchem, Idaho.

Hemingway wrote very little about Idaho, but I found something in the library that may suggest what his first impressions were. He wrote a eulogy in 1939 for Gene Van Guilder, who died in a hunting accident. Though his remarks were about his friend, I think they reveal what Hemingway thought of Sun Valley:

He loved the warm sun of the summer and the high mountain meadows, the trails through timber and the sudden clear blue of the lakes. He loved the hills in the winter when the snow comes. Best of all, he loved the fall…the fall with the tawny and grey, the leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams and above the hills the high blue windless skies. He loved to shoot, he loved to ride and he loved to fish. 

This writing is unmistakably Hemingway, with its own cadences and musicality, his ability to use the right number of words and no more. 

Part of my goal here, through this immersion in his life and work, was to try to figure out why Hemingway, whose language was so vivid and stories so deeply felt, has not had his writings become the source material for successful operas. I created a list of operas I have seen based on the novels of American writers. They include An American Tragedy (Dreiser), The Aspern Papers (James), Bel Canto (Ann Patchett), The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald), Little Women (Alcott), McTeague (Frank Norris), Moby-Dick (Melville), Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck), The Postman Always Rings Twice (James M. Cain), The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne) and Willie Stark (based Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men).

I found mention of a one-act opera version of The Sun Also Rises by a composer named Webster Young that premiered at Long Island Opera in 2000. I know nothing about it. In 1983, The New York Times reported that a two-act opera based on Hemingway’s life was composed in the Soviet Union by Yuri Kazarin with a libretto by Grigori Chiginov. It was translated into Spanish and presented at the Garcia Lorca Theater in Havana. It might be worth looking for.

To my knowledge, Hemingway was not an opera lover. His life was certainly eventful, with wars, bullfights, love affairs, plane crashes, wild game hunts and, through it all, a consistently remarkable output of novels and journalism. I find his words and the subjects in some of his writings to have great potential for opera. 

My choice would be The Old Man and the Sea as a chamber opera. Its title character, Santiago, would be a wonderful role for an older bass such as Samuel Ramey or Ferruccio Furlanetto, both of whom could bring a quixotic dimension to this humble everyman. This story of an unlucky fisherman and his pursuit of a big catch — a marlin or a shark — is contrasted with the devotion of Manolin, his apprentice. The opera would provide a powerfully human drama on man versus nature and also the sentimental affection between Santiago and Manolin. I think Jake Heggie could do a fine job with the music because he is adept at character delineation as well as using orchestral passages to capture the emotional underpinnings of a story and evoke the sounds and moods of nature. It would provide good opportunities for set and lighting design and have a cast and orchestra small enough to be economical. All of this would be in sync with Hemingway’s spare but powerful language.

Readers: Which work by Ernest Hemingway do you think is ready to be an opera? Please explain why you made your choice and suggest a suitable composer in the comment section below.


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Comments [11]

SFinkelstein from Delaware

My compliments on another fine article and a good question. I suggest a triptych using three of Hem's short stories:
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and The End of Something and A Clean Well-Lighted Place. Those who know these stories will know why these three. A sensational evening would be had by all. His short stories have made for decent movies - The Killers (with Burt Lancaster) and Kilimanjaro (with Greg Peck and the incomparable Ava).

Sep. 29 2016 12:03 PM
Jim Newsom from Hot Springs, AR

I think A Farewell to Arms would make a great Hemingway opera. It's a love story with a wartime backstory. The story is rife with love and tragedy and strength. You wouldn't have to have a cast of thousands to do the war scenes and Catherine Barkley and Lt. Henry have some very passionate love scenes.

Sep. 29 2016 11:48 AM
Michael Hewitt from Houston

"To Have and Have Not"
Good guy forced to do not-so-good things for his family's well-being.


Sep. 20 2016 07:27 PM
Zdenko Sulc from Island of Losinj Croatia

A most delightful article. Thank you, Mr. Plotkin !

Sep. 19 2016 11:38 AM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

The Scarlet Letter would be my choice.

Sep. 16 2016 07:07 AM
Bryan Kesselman from London

I have often thought that The Old Man and the Sea would make an interesting piece to set as a kind of dramatic cantata or opera. I have toyed with the idea of making such a setting, but one has to acquire the rights, and then one has the financial costs of mounting a performance. Commissions to compose works such as this are all too rare. Stylistically, I would prefer that the music for an opera on this subject should not be experimental or atonal - for otherwise it would bring no enjoyment to the audience and have little future life (and I am weary of jagged musical lines where listener and singer vainly try to find a melody). I agree with your ideal casting for the Old Man. The music would need to illustrate the power of the sea and the contest between man and nature.

Sep. 16 2016 04:00 AM
Webster Young from France

I don't want to be making too many self-serving comments - after doing The Sun Also Rises, I made an opera out of Death in the Afternoon, and used Hemingway's short story, "BanalStory", to give it plot structure. I wanted to create an opera that was about Madrid and bull fighting, and that was not another Carmen. The full opera has never been performed, but its arias have and are all published with success.

Here is the aria "Manuel Garcia Maera" sung by Efren Puig,who was a frequent stand in for Domingo.

Sep. 16 2016 03:09 AM
Webster Young from France

This might be of interest, re the adaptation of Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises could make a good 4 Act, but I found that the it works well as a one act, because the love interest has so little true plot. Instead of "boy gets girl/ boy looses girl/ boy gets girl back" its is simply "boy can not have girl, and girl is not happy". But this led to a beautiful structure - that of the ancient "aubade" , the farewell of lovers at dawn as the sun rises. ( I had the permission of the Hemingway estate for the premiere)

Sep. 16 2016 02:45 AM
Webster Young from France

"The Sun Also Rises" has been made into an opera. The full recording is at and its arias are on Youtube at the channel called NewInOpera (insist on the one word ) The arias from it have been published and are popular with singers. If this site is a blog, please take note of this. It received superlative reviews and comments.

Lady Brett's Aria:

Sep. 16 2016 02:35 AM
Nick Graham from Philadelphia, PA

My choice would be "For Whom the Bell Tolls" because it is one of his most beautifully written books. The characters and plot are utterly compelling. The story of an outsider drawn to help a band of people whose lives are on the line in a beautiful place. A love story set in a time of war and political unrest -- with characters who you care about set in a short span of time. All of that would translate well to a dramatized and musical-reality. The composer I choose is Margaret Garwood, whose most acclaimed work was an opera of "The Scarlet Letter". I know some of her choral work and she uses the human voice, as well as the voices of the orchestra so beautifully -- I feel she would really carry this story so completely. This was fun, thanks, Mr. Plotkin!

Sep. 16 2016 01:07 AM
John from Arlington, VA

The short story THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO, a moving internal monologue that would have memories and regrets, composed by Gregory Spears.

Sep. 15 2016 10:28 PM

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