Mabel Dodge Luhan focus of UNM opera

Lillian Ridout is Mabel Dodge Luhan and Curtis Storm is Maurice Sterne in “Mabel’s Call.” (Courtesy of Shea Perry)

New Mexico would not be the artistic magnet it became without the life of Mabel Dodge Luhan.

The New York society maven lured Georgia O’Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand and Martha Graham, to her Taos estate. She acted as an international advocate for both Native American and Hispanic art.

The University of New Mexico Opera Theater will pay homage to this visionary woman with the premiere of “Mabel’s Call,” a new chamber opera by Nell Shaw Cohen. Performances begin in Keller Hall on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 2-3 and on Sunday, Nov. 4.

Both the composer and librettist, Cohen first learned about Luhan through her own interest in O’Keeffe.

Luhan was bipolar. During her manic phases, she often convinced herself she could save the world through her utopian visions, said her biographer, Lois Rudnick.

“I think she herself was operatic by nature,” Cohen said in an interview from Portland, Ore., where the New York-based composer was traveling. “I became fascinated by her influence on American modernism.”

Cohen immersed herself in Taos through artistic residencies in 2016 and 2017 with the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. She also scoured scholarly research, including Rudnick’s biography.

“Mabel has lots of soaring high notes and melismas and florid singing,” Cohen said. “Her presence was quite dramatic, which led to people loving her and hating her. And the scale on which she lived was operatic to me. She did have these extreme ups and downs.”

The opera spans 1917 to 1923, beginning when Luhan first arrived in New Mexico through her former husband, the painter Maurice Sterne.

“The opera begins when she’s in a psychoanalytic session,” Cohen said. “She’s having an identity crisis. World War I is happening, and she feels disillusioned. She goes to New Mexico and sees there is something more.”

The only child of a “Gilded Age” couple, Luhan created a “Paris West” in the American Southwest. She influenced legions of European and American artists to discover new aesthetic, social and cultural perspectives.

Luhan rented a Taos home in 1918. She instantly fell in love with both the town and Antonio Lujan of Taos Pueblo.

“She joined (Sterne) and had this vision of Taos as the ultimate place,” Cohen said. “She was searching for that connection to nature and that connection to indigenous culture.”

She soon sent Sterne back to New York and married Lujan, her fourth husband, in 1923.

“Mabel’s Call” is an opera-in-progress, Cohen said.

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