The Grapes of Wrath: Bloomgberg Muse, 2008

Steinbeck `Wrath’ Sears in New Staging

Sept. 8 (Bloomberg) — Composer Ricky Ian Gordon’s fluent, powerful setting of a great — maybe the greatest — American novel, John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath," is now available on a vivid, three-CD box set from PS Classics. The opera already has drawn critical raves and silenced many of the naysayers who bemoan the lack of another great American opera of the stature of "Porgy and Bess."

First produced by the Minnesota Opera with a young, eager and mostly unknown cast led by Grant Gershon, "The Grapes of Wrath" is next due, in January 2009, at Opera Pacific in California’s Orange County.

Best known so far for his adroit Broadway-style "songbooks" that challenge the best of Stephen Sondheim, and for a quasi-operatic treatment of the classic "Orpheus and Euridice" legend that the Long Beach Opera Company produced last season in a rowboat in a municipal swimming pool, Gordon admits to taking a huge leap into the unknown with this treatment of Steinbeck’s epic novel.

"I finally had to decide that if I was going to be a composer, this is what I had to do," the 52-year-old, Long Island-born composer averred in a recent telephone chat.

Steinbeck’s Ending

Librettist Michael Korie arrived at a similar conclusion. Author of lighter-weight texts, including one ("Hopper’s Wife" in which the wife of the painter metamorphoses into gossip columnist Hedda), Korie took on the Dust Bowl novel at full worth, bypassing the upbeat philosophy that ends the famous John Ford film version in favor of the stark tragedy of the Steinbeck original.

"The music just came flying out of me," Gordon remembers. Maybe so, but nothing in his pliant score suggests any sense of airy lightheartedness.

"The last time there was rain," the chorus sings wistfully at the start, eyeing their parched farmland and sadly remembering better times. At the end they sing with equal sadness of "the day the rain began," destroying the cotton crop and sending the wandering Joad family again on the road.

"Simple Child," a song for Ma Joad on the death of her child Noah, has a haunting beauty that could guarantee it a separate concert life.

Opera, like Hollywood, loves American literature, though literature doesn’t always return the compliment. Creditable musical treatments in recent years, imposed upon the literature of Tennessee Williams, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald and their fellows have come — and, for the most part, gone.

Something about this "Grapes of Wrath," however, suggests a staying power. Partly it is the humility, the willingness of composer and librettist to let Steinbeck’s overpowering textual lyricism rest undisturbed. Partly it is the sound of Gordon’s music: chorus and orchestra joined in this "big fat musical," as he calls it, in a vernacular style that works even in an operatic and a serious concert setting.

Maybe, this time, that creaky old institution known as opera really has turned a corner. It wouldn’t be a moment too soon.

– Alan Rich, Bloomberg Muse: Arts and Culture, 8 September 2008