The Grapes of Wrath: Classical Singer, May 2007

The Grapes of Wrath – Ripe for Success?

In our January issue CS featured an article on the Feb. 10 world premiere of a new opera, The Grapes of Wrath. Now we take the opportunity to talk with composer Ricky Ian Gordon and baritone Brian Leerhuber (Tom Joad) one month after the opera’s Minnesota Opera premiere and just prior to its Utah Opera opening.

Anticipation filled the cold Minnesota night air as a capacity crowd streamed into St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s first full-length opera, The Grapes of Wrath. Ten years and $2 million in the making, the much-anticipated opening was finally here.

Backstage, the singers kept their nerves in check. The production had faced some issues of balance – the huge orchestration threatened at times to overwhelm the singers in what some considered the Ordway’s inconsistent acoustics. The gigantic chorus faced an immense task that included Doug Varone’s vigorous choreography, plus intricate ensembles and detailed set changes for which they served as stagehands. Minnesota’s brutal winter had been hard on the performers – sore throats and sniffles swept through the cast in waves. The backstage trade in cold prevention supplements among cast members was astonishing – but in spite of obstacles, the company, imbued with the sense of pursuing a higher mission, was well rehearsed and eager to perform.

Following a pre-concert dinner arranged by Minnesota Opera, Gordon commented, "Tonight, at 11:15, all the toys could be taken away. What if my opera bombs? What if it’s panned and decimated? So much money had been spent . . . a huge risk. A grand opera in today’s economy! I was thinking of another career for myself – I could always go back to cleaning houses for a living."

Gordon need not have worried. In the past month, Musical America and others have proclaimed his telling of John Steinbeck’s epic tale of the Joad family’s flight to California in the depths of the Great Depression the "Great American Opera."

Among those singing the opera’s praises, LA Times critic Mark Swed called The Grapes of Wrath, "A brilliant production and cast, the timeless and timely essence of Steinbeck’s epic." Variety wrote, "Its telling is nothing short of incandescent." Critics loved the cast of 13 principal singers and 50 featured roles; they loved Gordon’s powerfully evocative score, the poetic libretto by Michael Korie, Eric Simonson’s imaginative staging, the handsome set design by Allen Moyer, and the 60-piece orchestra under the able direction of Grant Gershon.

Length remains an issue for this longanticipated work. At just over four hours, with three acts and 33 scenes, the debate continues as to whether the opera should be shortened. "As far as I’m concerned – and this is a minority opinion – the nearly four-hour opera was too short," wrote Swed. Alex Ross of The New Yorker declared, "The opera achieves its impact because it does not skimp on detail and preserves the hugeness of Steinbeck’s canvas." Wes Blomster, of the online site Opera Today, agreed: "It is just as long as it needs to be!"

Baritone Brian Leerhuber, who sings Tom Joad in the opera, has no problem with the new work’s length. "I really don’t understand this," he says. "The book is big, the scope is epic . . . so what does one expect? People sit through four hours of Carmen and Aida all the time, not to mention Wagner."

Big productions are expensive, however, and the inevitable cuts loom as the show travels to Utah Opera for six performances in May 2007 with appearances in Pittsburgh and Houston in 2008. Not surprisingly, the thought of shortening the work has been uncomfortable for Gordon – but now he is "totally making friends with the cuts."

"I no longer feel like we’re ruining the piece," he explains. "I recognize that cutting will allow the piece to be done more. Maybe the piece in its cut version will have a strength that is unique and makes it viable for many companies – but honestly, I prefer the complete version."

At the third of the five premiere performances, Garrison Keillor – host of the popular radio show, Prairie Home Companion – was spotted sitting at the back of the Ordway. The iconic Minnesota radio star surprised everyone when he invited Gordon and the principals to appear on the broadcast – in two days.

"The call from Prairie Home Companion came on Thursday night, asking if we could be on the show Saturday night," says Gordon. Keillor, it seems had become an instant fan of the opera. "Magnificent! A great opera, a great show," he said. "I don’t want to gush . . . but there’s a certain envy – you wish you had done it."

Keillor was taken with Michael Korie’s words and read them on the air. (You can listen to the entire Grapes of Wrath segment on Prairie Home Companion’s website: Leerhuber describes Keillor as "charming, funny, and unassuming. Here was this cast of seasoned operatic veterans who have performed on stages all over the world – all entranced, as if this was the most exciting performance of their lives."

What else does the future hold as the opera travels to Utah? The cast and principals remain largely the same. Soprano Jennifer Aylmer is taking over the role of Rosasharn for Kelly Kaduce, who is moving on to the Florida Grand Opera in the title role of Anna Karenina.

"Grapes of Wrath was absolutely, utterly a phenomenal success," says Minnesota Opera’s Lani Willis. The Ordway’s 1,900 seats were 98 percent full, and the opera achieved 108 percent of its expected box office receipts. Reliable sources noted that scalpers were selling tickets for as much as $500.

Now comes the question: Can Grapes of Wrath make its way into the mainstream opera repertoire? Gordon is now entertaining offers from Opera Pacific and the Edinburgh Festival, and hopes that eventually Grapes of Wrath will play A-level houses all over the world.

Saving the best for last, Gordon reports that a pivotal development has come about since the opera’s debut. One day last March, he received a call from Paul Cremo, the dramaturg at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Met, under the leadership of its new general manager, Peter Gelb, is commissioning a select group of composers and writers to create a body of new American works in collaboration with the Lincoln Center Theater. The Met has commissioned Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie to write a new opera. At this writing, details are forthcoming, but creating a work for one of the top opera houses in the world may be the ultimate accolade for a composer.

For The Grapes of Wrath, and for Gordon, the future looks promising – it looks like he’ll be filling houses, not cleaning them.

– Genette Freeman, Classical Singer, May 2007