The Grapes of Wrath: Standard-Enquirer, 2007

Bravo for ‘GRAPES of WRATH’

Ricky Ian Gordon, a successful Broadway composer, certainly wasn’t looking for an opera project, much less the task of turning an epic novel into a classic.

“I didn’t pick the book,” Gordon said, of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” “I was asked by the Minnesota Opera, which then asked Utah to participate. It was daunting, but I took a plane to California and back, and on the plane ride I read the book, and was dazzled by it, and shaken, and utterly upset. And I thought, ‘If the book could do this to me, what could it do as an opera?’ “

A decade after the Minnesota opera committed to its $2 million project, which is cocommissioned by Utah Opera, “The Grapes of Wrath” comes to Utah. The opera premiered in Minnesota in February.

“I asked myself, ‘Why be a composer if you’re not trying to say something through a story this big?’ ” Gordon recalled. “This story is powerful and it’s important and, yes, it was daunting, but in the end, reading the book changed my life, and making the opera changed my life. I really feel I had to let that story come through me. So did Michael (Korie, the librettist). It’s been very transformative.”

Steinbeck’s novel, first published 68 years ago, has sold more than 15 million copies to date. The 500-page novel tells the story of the Joad family, forced from its farm by drought and foreclosure. A pilgrimage west, for the promise of work during the harvest, stretches the family beyond its breaking point. Society, and a capitalistic system that benefits only the wealthy, lets the Joads down at every turn.

It’s fiction, of course, but Gordon hopes the story will open the viewers’ eyes to current inequities in the world.

“People who come into an opera house, at least classically speaking, are not thinking about poor, starving people,” Gordon said. “We tried to make it an opera about poor, starving people that would make audiences think, and I have to tell you, we sold out very single performance in Minnesota. People would be sobbing by the end, and no one ever walked out. It feels like we did something right. We really felt as if we might have had an impact.”

Lyrical voice
Leading up to the triumphant Minnesota premiere were years of writing and rewriting, of words by Korie and of music by Gordon. Retaining Steinbeck’s style was essential. “It had to be written in Steinbeck’s voice, and Michael really found a way, I think, to plumb the novel for a lot of Steinbeck’s most beautiful lines, and to allow them to evolve,” Gordon said. “The novel has a very clipped voice, but if it’s going to be opera, you have to be more rhapsodic. He found a way to be rhapsodic in a more Steinbeckian voice.”

Another huge challenge: to tell a lengthy story in the limited length of time an audience was willing to stay in its seats. The Minnesota version of the opera came in at about 3 hours 45 minutes, with intermissions. The Utah version will be cut by 15 to 20 minutes, due to performers’ union requirements.

“The book is huge, but we used a lot of the story,” Gordon said. “We had to ask ourselves what an opera could do that a book could not, and the movie could not, and the play could not.

“Then we realized we had a chorus, and we could use it for all the Steinbeckian chapters that aren’t the story of the Joad family, that are more part of Steinbeck’s commentary. The chorus really did become a Greek chorus, in a very Steinbeckian voice.”

The chorus summarizes key events not shown on stage, and put the story in context. The opera opens with the chorus backed by a field of healthy, green corn, and the sound of rain. The rain stops, and the corn turns brown and dies, and is swallowed by a dust storm. Rear projections are used.

“In that number, the entire Dust Bowl is born and explained,” Gordon said.

Old and new
The major roles will be played by the same singers who originated them in Minnesota, Gordon said. The chorus and orchestra are local.

Gordon said he was struck by the local commitment, and the speed with which local singers “made the music their own.”

He hopes Utah opera-goers will be just as committed.

“I hope people show up and I hope it has an impact,” Gordon said. “Music can underscore the emotional and psychological implications of a story. If we successfully musicalized the book, it will be like a jewel in a beautiful new setting.”

– Nancy Van Valkenburg, Standard-Enquirer, 11 May 2007