Classic tale's new voice
'The Grapes of Wrath' as opera; Steinbeck's classic novel bears operatic fruit

The Joads' long road brings them to Salt Lake City on Saturday, when Utah Opera opens its production of "The Grapes of Wrath." The new opera already has cleared a big hurdle. Critics on both coasts, as well as the Twin Cities press, gave near-unanimous praise after "Grapes' " world premiere at Minnesota Opera in February.

"The great American opera? Ricky Ian Gordon's 'Grapes of Wrath' might be it," Wes Blomster proclaimed in Musical America.

"You couldn't ask for a more comfortably appointed evening of vintage musical Americana," Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker. "Yet, with a slyness worthy of [Kurt] Weill, Gordon wields his hummable tunes to critical effect." Only Heidi Waleson of The Wall Street Journal sounded a sour note, calling Gordon's music "almost relentlessly tuneful and edgeless . . . too lightweight for tragedy."

Audience reaction was "just immense," said Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth. "People really felt they were coming away from a significant event." McBeth said he was hooked on "Grapes" after hearing Gordon play the opening four bars on a piano three summers ago. "I still have that sound in my head."

Gordon and librettist Michael Korie's adaptation of the John Steinbeck classic has been in the making for more than a decade.

Dale Johnson, artistic director of Minnesota Opera, pitched the idea to stage director Eric Simonson back in 1995. By the time they had secured the rights from Steinbeck's estate, Utah Opera general director Anne Ewers (who is now CEO of Utah Symphony & Opera) had signed on as co-commissioner. The companies split the cost of the $1.8 million project 60-40, with Minnesota pitching in the larger share. Utah audiences got their first taste of "Grapes" in 2004, when Gordon, Korie and Simonson gave a reading at the Utah Arts Festival. There were more excerpts at the 2005 festival and a semistaged performance of the first act last summer.

The music is "a perfect balance of accessibility and invention," conductor Grant Gershon said. "Audiences in Minnesota were really struck and surprised that they could actually come out humming the tunes - we're conditioned against that expectation in contemporary opera. At the same time, there's nothing simplistic about Ricky's [musical] language. It's complex, but he knows how to write a great tune." Instruments such as guitar, banjo and harmonica add a folk flavor.

"He uses our music - jazz, Coplandlike music, folkloric music," Simonson said. "It's a patchwork - a quilt of American sound." The 1939 novel is "very operatic," Korie said in a 2004 interview.

"It has a three-act structure that's perfect for opera" - the Joad family's displacement from their Oklahoma homestead by the Dust Bowl, their cross-country migration and the events that befall them in California. Unlike John Ford's 1940 film and Frank Galati's 1988 stage play, the opera incorporates the alternating chapters in which Steinbeck comments on "America at the time, an America that could allow the plight of the Joads," Gordon said.

"The story is very faithful, except where we exaggerated," Korie said. For example, cognitively delayed brother Noah simply wanders away from the family in the book; Korie expanded on his departure and made it the climax of the opera's second act.

Gordon and Korie trimmed about 40 minutes from the opera during rehearsals in Minnesota and whittled 15 to 20 minutes more before bringing it to Utah.

"For the most part, the cuts didn't affect the story," Korie said.

"[The result is] not only something we can live with, but something stronger." Cutting the grandparents' duet "Tricky Old Devil" improved the dramatic flow, he said, while an excised section dealing with agribusiness "did not advance the story, it advanced the politics."

Many of the other cuts came from "reprises and redundancies," Korie said - music that might have seemed necessary on the page, not so much when the creators saw it onstage.

"Luckily, it's not a painting," he noted. "This is music - you can put those pages back."

"Someday we'll do a 'Meistersinger' version of 'Grapes of Wrath,' " Gordon joked.

Maybe, maybe not. In any case, there will be future productions.

Houston Grand Opera, Pittsburgh Opera and Opera Pacific have signed on; Minnesota already is planning a 2011 revival. Gershon has scheduled a concert version with his Los Angeles Master Chorale next year. Tulsa Opera had expressed interest, but the company's board nixed the idea; apparently, the "Okies' " exodus is still a sensitive subject in Oklahoma.

"It's a very important, powerful piece that needs to be done," said Brian Leerhuber, who played Tom Joad in the Minnesota premiere and reprises the role here. "The fact that people are still scared is so telling."

The Joads' plight reflects reality for much, if not most, of the world's population, said mezzosoprano Deanne Meek, who sings the central role of Ma Joad. "This is about the dispossessed," she said.

"[Ma] has no room to feel sorry for herself or even wish things were different. . . . I don't think anybody can afford for her to be less than the foundation they can all hold onto."

"What I find really satisfying about the opera is that it's so American in the sense of being all inclusive, generous and open, and at the same time not shying from the serious issues and questions the story raises," Gershon said. " 'The Grapes of Wrath' is about the bleakest story one could imagine, . . . but at the end of the opera, you're left with an incredible sense of strength and resilience."
- Catherine Reese Newton, Salt Lake Tribune, 5 May 2007