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Riders of the Purple Sage: The Making of a Western Opera

Opera’s hallowed traditions and America's cowboy culture converge to celebrate the collaborative power of art.

RIDERS of the PURPLE SAGE: THE MAKING OF A WESTERN OPERA follows a classically-trained composer as he adapts a dime novel masterpiece into a grand opera. Zane Grey’s 1912 tale about Jane Withersteen, a rancher harassed by her churchmen, and Lassiter, the gunman who empowers her, flew off bookshelves around the world and was recognized by the Library of Congress on its list of “One Hundred Books that Shaped America.”

A century later, composer Craig Bohmler dives into Zane Grey's cabin during a rainstorm. There, amidst posters from Grey’s Hollywood Westerns, he discovers a story with the dimensions of an opera. What begins as a challenge between a composer and his librettist evolves into a creative posse of artists, musicians, and singers sharing a singular vision. When internationally renowned landscape painter Ed Mell agrees to translate Arizona's landscape into scenery and starts building a monumental set, the opera accelerates toward its world premiere. The power of the novel and its heroine are reclaimed as the opera is mounted opening night with a story that marries deep musical traditions and cutting-edge stagecraft with matinee heroes. RIDERS of the PURPLE SAGE: THE MAKING OF A WESTERN OPERA traces the metamorphosis of making a great story stand up and sing.

  • Kristin Atwell Ford
    Protecting the Source, Fire & Water: Restoring Arizona's Forests, Theodore Roosevelt Dam: Arizona's Living Legacy, Castle Hot Springs: Oasis of Time, Quartzite's Fall: A Wilderness Tale
  • Kristin Atwell Ford
    The Arizona Centennial Series, Hosted by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Scott J. Hooker
    War Zone Diary, Erasing Hate, Batalla en la Frontera, Semper Fi: Always Faithful, Witness to Jonestown
  • Peter Coyote
    Key Cast
    "Zane Grey"
    Erin Brockovich, ET The Extra Terrestrial, Vietnam, The Roosevelts
  • Karin Wolverton
    Key Cast
    "Jane Withersteen "
    Operas: Silent Night, The Grapes of Wrath, Carmen, The Magic Flute
  • Morgan Smith
    Key Cast
    Operas: Moby Dick, Madama Butterfly, The Tales of Hoffman, Dead Man Walking
  • Craig Bohmler
    Key Cast
    Musicals: Enter the Guardsman, Gunmetal Blues, Mountain Days, Quiltmaker's Gift, Friedl
  • Steven Mark Kohn
    Key Cast
    Musicals: Friedl, The Quiltmaker's Gift, Unstoppable Me, Let Them Live
  • Jacob Bricca
    Lost in La Mancha, Con Artist, Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew, Pure, Finding Tatanka
  • Misty Wilson
    Broken Leg, Mr. Memento, Good Timber, The Joe Show, Trials: Finding the Medal
  • Project Type:
    Documentary, Feature
  • Genres:
    Documentary, Western, Women's Rights, Performing Arts, Musical, Literature, Historic Gun Control
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 22 minutes 8 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    May 22, 2020
  • Production Budget:
    650,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
    Digital 4K
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
  • Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival
    Minneapolis, Minnesota
    United States
    May 21, 2021
    Minnesota Premiere
Distribution Information
  • Kristin Atwell Ford
    Sales Agent
    Country: Worldwide
    Rights: All Rights
Director Biography - Kristin Atwell Ford

Arizona native Kristin Atwell Ford is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker capturing the creation of a new American opera in a feature-length documentary. RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE: THE MAKING OF A WESTERN OPERA follows Zane Grey’s artistic process writing his iconic novel and the synthesis of artists who collaborate a century later to build a complex live performance through music, visual arts, and the human voice.

While apprenticed to Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman at Concentric Media in San Francisco, Kristin directed her first film, QUARTZITE'S FALL: A WILDERNESS TALE. The documentary short is narrated by Peter Coyote and screened with the Best of the Banff Mountain Film World Tour in 2001.

After returning to Arizona, the home of the landscape that inspires her work, Kristin co-directed and wrote the documentary, THEODORE ROOSEVELT DAM: ARIZONA'S LIVING LEGEND. Narrated by Peter Coyote and produced by Salt River Project, it won the 2011 Emmy Award for Best Historical Documentary.

In 2012 Kristin produced the nine-part ARIZONA CENTENNIAL SERIES HOSTED BY JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR, which aired on PBS/KAET. Kristin also wrote and co-produced PROTECTING THE SOURCE, which aired on PBS/KAET and won the 2016 Emmy Award for special environmental program. In 2019, Kristin and the team at Quantum Leap Productions produced the regional Emmy Award-winning historical documentary about a landscape of myths and memories, CASTLE HOT SPRINGS: OASIS OF TIME.

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Director Statement

"Forget what you've heard about opera being remote and elitist. Opera is the art form that, perhaps more than any other, specializes in heightened emotion, and in finding ways to communicate it." THE WASHINGTON POST

Zane Grey's 1912 novel, "Riders of the Purple Sage" is driven by conflicts we still face today. The story features the "patriarchy-smashing heroine," Jane Withersteen, who fights her church's abuse of power while she struggles to maintain her personal relationship with God. Enter Lassiter, the gunslinger. In the character of Lassiter, Zane Grey crafted the image of how America loves to see itself - as the lone hero who sets everything straight.

If Grey's story provides the blood, the forward momentum of mounting a new opera is the film's beating heart. The film is organized by a simple principle: how do you make an opera? Opera is larger than life, requires the cooperation of an army of artists, and must adapt to survive. Opera gathers all the arts in a single heightened explosion of human experience. It may, in fact, be the perfect art form for our times. It's moving to see so many people pouring their hearts and talents into a live collaborative art form, especially when theaters are closed.

"Riders of the Purple Sage" is the headwaters of the Western genre. It’s a timeless story about grief, redemption, and what it takes to live in the punishingly beautiful land I call home. With its musical storytelling, grand setting, and mix of writers, singers, musicians, and my favorite living painter, this film fulfills my soul's need for wilderness and art. 

Kristin Atwell Ford