On June 18, 2016, Taos Mayor Dan Barrone declared the first “Mabel Dodge Luhan Day,” to be observed on the third weekend of June. In a statement, Barrone said, “Mabel brought people from all over the world to Taos at a time where there were no airports and no paved roads to get here. She cherished and promoted the uniqueness of our three cultures and the rich artistic, architectural, musical, craft and inspirational contributions of each, separately and when blended together.”
The official town proclamation reads, “Mabel Dodge Luhan was one of, if not the most prominent and globally known resident of our community from 1918 to 1962, serving as our unofficial ambassador, mentor and host to the arts, to the outside world and to many of the most talented, influential, and well-known figures of her lifetime.”
In celebration of the second annual Mabel Dodge Luhan Day weekend, the Harwood Museum of Art is hosting “Mabel’s Call: Celebrating a Remarkable Taos Woman through Music.” This free presentation by composer and librettist Nell Shaw Cohen and Luhan biographer Lois Rudnick takes place at 2 p.m. Sunday (June 18) and is an exploration of Cohen’s “Mabel’s Call,” an original chamber opera based on the life of Mabel Dodge Luhan.
Cohen and Rudnick will screen and discuss video clips from a concert workshop performance of Cohen’s opera in progress, which was videotaped live at the Harwood Museum in 2016. There will also be time for the audience to ask questions.
It is unusual for an opera composer to write the libretto for her own work, but that is just what Cohen has done for “Mabel’s Call.” Cohen’s creative process has included reading Luhan’s memoirs, biographies on Luhan and other historical documents. In addition, she has spoken with scholars who have studied Luhan’s life and influence.
As a result of her background research, “Mabel’s Call” stays true to what Cohen calls the spirit of Luhan’s story, while also taking the creative license to imaginatively enrich its narrative.
“Mabel’s Call” is a one-act opera scored for six soloists, chorus and chamber ensemble. The workshop performances of the opera in progress that will be screened at the Harwood showcase the voices of soprano Shelley Jackson as Mabel Dodge Luhan, tenor André Garcia-Nuthmann as Maurice Sterne and baritone Carlos Archuleta as Tony Lujan. The full instrumental and choral composition is reduced to a piano score played by music director Kristin Ditlow.
Cohen said “Mabel’s Call” begins in late 1917 in New York City when Luhan is consulting with her psychoanalyst and decides to leave New York to come to New Mexico. It ends in the 1920s when she is married to Taos Pueblo tribal member Tony Lujan.
“I really am following the arc from [Luhan’s] realization that she needs to make a drastic life change to her decision that her new role is to call the modernists to Taos, which is why it’s called ‘Mabel’s Call,’” explained Cohen.
Cohen said she was interested in how Luhan created a meeting point for such diverse artists as painter Georgia O’Keeffe, photographer Ansel Adams and dance choreographer Martha Graham.
“Once I started learning more about [Luhan] and her life, I found she was a really fascinating character. Her life story also brings together many different themes that I find extremely interesting – her facilitation of artists and their connection to the Southwestern landscape, a woman seeking influence in the early 20th century, the tensions between appropriation and advocacy in her engagement with the Pueblo and Hispano communities in Taos and generally much of the complexity, challenge and beauty of the American experience.”
Cohen said, “The contradictions within her personality and the scale at which she lived her life I felt would make a really good opera because she was really a larger-than-life character … and the conflicts within her personality are great material for coming up with a dramatic story line. She was both wonderful and terrible.”
Based in New York City, Cohen is the director of LandscapeMusic.org, a publication and composers network, and is an advocate for nature-inspired music. Cohen is a finalist for a chamber opera commission from Houston Grand Opera / HGOco. She recently completed the Composers & the Voice fellowship with American Opera Projects, participated in the Composer-Librettist Studio at New Dramatists and was awarded an artist residency at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico in Taos. Cohen studied at New England Conservatory and New York University. For more information, visit nellshawcohen.com.
Rudnick is professor emerita of American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her scholarly focus is modern American culture, particularly the artist and writer communities in Santa Fe and Taos. She is the author of “Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds,” published by the University of New Mexico Press and considered the definitive biography on Luhan.
Rudnick was co-curator and co-editor of “Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West,” an exhibition and catalog produced by the Harwood Museum about the circle of artists, writers and social reformers that Luhan brought to Taos between 1918 and 1947.