CMU alumnus turns Steinbeck's 'Grapes' into wine with Pittsburgh Opera
Music Preview

Ricky Ian Gordon's "The Grapes of Wrath" is akin to the Joad family truck: filled with everything that has gotten him this far and headed to a new land.

When approached to set John Steinbeck's classic tracing the Joad family's exodus from Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma to the prejudice-filled California, the composer had only written one full-length opera.

"I am a writer for the lyric theater," says Gordon, who has obtained critical success primarily with his penetrating off-Broadway musicals.

Still, Gordon felt that "this is one of those moments in life where, if I say no, then I am probably not a composer. It is the most staggeringly beautiful book and the characters are so alive. They say, if you are afraid to fly, fly scared ... this is worth being scared about."

Gordon's fears were not realized, and "Grapes" premiered in 2007 at the Minnesota Opera to general acclaim. This weekend, the Pittsburgh Opera opens a production of a revised "Grapes" at the Benedum Center.

"It is very subtly and sensitively done," says Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn. "It is very moving." Gordon was worried from the beginning that he would incur the nation's wrath if he failed, but in fact, the Steinbeck Foundation has praised his treatment of the novel.

Gordon was born in 1956 and raised in an extraordinarily artistic family on Long Island. His mother was a Borscht Belt singer, one sister a blues guitarist, another a painter and another, the late Susan Gordon Lydon, a founding editor of Rolling Stone and influential presence in the feminist movement. "My influences are eclectic," he says.

"[Growing up] no one said there is serious music and not serious music, so when people started saying crossover music I said what does that even mean? I am just a synthesis of all the music I love." He has been influenced by a wide variety of artists and composers, including the Beatles, Benjamin Britten, Joni Mitchell, Kurt Weill, Neil Young, Marc Blitzstein, Gustav Mahler and Ned Rorem.

Gordon's worldview was furthered during his years as a student at Carnegie Mellon University, where he enrolled in 1974 and spent 3 1/2 years, studying piano performance and drama and finding his early voice as a composer. "It was sort of like I walked into my own life," he recalls. "The minute the task was put upon me to write music, I suddenly knew what I was supposed to do."

Not that he wrote much music the way he was "supposed to." Gordon flourished writing unconventional off-Broadway musicals, personal art songs, cabaret music and longer works on a wide variety of topics from Buddhism ("The Tibetan Book of the Dead") to Proust ("My Life With Albertine") to loss of a loved one ("Green Sneakers").

But all along, he has wanted to write opera.

"As a kid I went to the Lincoln Center Library every Saturday to get every opera written in the 20th century. By the time I got to Carnegie I knew every opera by Tippett, all of Henze, all of Britten, all of Shostakovich. It was my listening vocabulary."

Years later, Gordon finally took action on his dream. In 1994, he shopped a cassette around to opera companies and piqued David Glockley's interest at Houston Opera. The two settled on a personal tragedy with contemporary resonance.

"I had a partner at the time who had AIDS and wanted me to study the Buddhist teachings because he wanted to die a Buddhist," says Gordon. He had been reading "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," and Gordon turned it into a chamber opera that premiered in 1996.

Gordon wrote more works out of his personal loss, including the song-cycles "Orpheus and Euridice" and "Green Sneakers," but on the horizon was an opera on a collectively American subject, the Great Depression. He felt that "Grapes of Wrath's " tragic tale would translate well into the realm of opera, especially if it were cast in strong theatrical terms and with a folk-infused musical palette.

And he felt that the best way to do so was through song, rather than with traditional forms as several recent operatic versions of novels have used, including John Harbison's "The Great Gatsby" and Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking," to name a few.

"I am a songwriter, a melodist, and tried to think of 'Grapes of Wrath' as moving from song to song and telling the story that way," says Gordon of the three-act opera. "There is only one place in the opera that feels like we stopped for a set piece." For this reason, and with his background in musicals, he decided he needed to work with a lyricist in addition to a traditional librettist. Gordon found both in Michael Korie, with whom he had worked before on a musical called "Shimmer" and who was nominated for a Tony for "Grey Gardens." Korie had the yeoman's task of turning Steinbeck's clipped dialect into singable verse and cutting massive amounts of plot.

Even as the novel presented challenges, also including a huge cast of characters (which translates into 19 soloists in the opera), Gordon and Korie discovered ways in which an operatic treatment could "enhance" the story.

"The format of the book is that every other chapter is Steinbeck's take on an America that could allow [the Joads' situation] to happen," he says. "We decided that no other adaptation -- not even the movie -- could use those chapters because they didn't have chorus. So we use our chorus to be not only the voice of Steinbeck, but the townspeople, the sharecroppers and America."

In addition to cuts, Gordon and Korie altered some elements of the plot and fleshed out others. "There is a scene in the book when Noah disappears when he walks down the river and is never heard from again," he says. "I could not deal with this character just disappearing. We changed it." In Gordon's version, Noah drowns himself.

But for the most part, Gordon found a wealth of mood in the novel. "There are tones of light in that book, like at the diner scene," for which Gordon wrote an Andrews Sisters-like chorus. For a square dance scene, and really throughout, a banjo, guitar and harmonica are "woven into the score" (the harmonica is played by Marc Reisman, formerly of the Houserockers, while Kenneth Karsh, on the faculty of Duquesne University, handles the banjo and guitar).

"You won't say, 'There's the harmonica,' but you will say it is a little different than a classical orchestra. It is a melange of American vernacular," says Gordon. "It runs the gamut from traditional opera to blues to Appalachian music."

Calling it "a fusion of opera and musical-theater style," Hahn thinks "Grapes" will appeal to people who don't usually head to the Benedum Center for opera, as well as impress regular patrons. "It has a different kind of resonance to it," he says. "There are lots of different vignettes that bubble to the surface of this journey, which allow this composer to show his diversity." In fact, the popular surface belies the score's motivic intricacy, which Gordon feels drives the opera's emotion as much as the powerful story.

But with the novel's famous ending, in which Rosasharon nurses a starving man with breast milk intended for her stillborn baby, Gordon and Korie simply wanted to pass on Steinbeck's profundity.

"When everything is taken from human beings, they still have the milk of human kindness to give to one another," says Gordon. "The circumstances are so tragic, but the human spirit is so magnificent."

He also admits that contemporary events colored his opera.

"We were writing this opera when America wanted to build a fence to keep its borders clear," he says. He wrote a chorus about refugees in the rain ("Ants on the Highway") when Hurricane Katrina happened. "We had to take that in. It is happening all the time."

After its successful premiere in St. Paul in 2007 and a subsequent production in Salt Lake City, Gordon and Korie still felt the strong need to substantially revise the first act and rewrite some vocal lines overall. "I wanted it to be more in your face, more intense," he says. They also had to make some cuts to reduce the opera to three hours.

And, to accommodate the vernacular style Gordon adopted to allow for the words to be clearly understood, he always felt some miking would be needed "to sweeten the sound" of individual voices. In the Pittsburgh production, all of the principals will wear body mikes. "I wanted this to feel epic. Meanwhile I also wanted [the singing] to be as if people were talking." But it will not be akin to the amplification of a Broadway show; "Grapes" singers will belt out their lines as in any opera.

"It is grand opera -- big old grand opera," says Gordon, "... cinematic and also musical." With an end, he says, that's "so beautiful it is unbearable."

On the Web: For audio selections from "The Grapes of Wrath," visit
- Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 13, 2008