'The Grapes of Wrath' - Steinbeck's novel comes to Utah Opera's stage

After having been turned into a movie and a play, "The Grapes of Wrath" has finally come to the operatic stage.

Librettist Michael Korie and composer Ricky Ian Gordon have taken John Steinbeck's sweeping saga of the Joad family and transformed it into a sprawling grand opera that captures the depth, vastness and poetic beauty of the novel.

A co-production between the Minnesota Opera and Utah Opera, "The Grapes of Wrath" was unveiled in February in Minnesota. On Saturday, the work will receive its local premiere in the Capitol Theatre with most of its original cast.

That it's taken so long for someone to make an opera out of Steinbeck's novel is rather surprising. After all, it has all the elements needed to make a good opera. And there has been no dearth of talented American composers in the years since the book was published in 1939 who could have done justice to it.

It wasn't because composers weren't interested. Composers wanted to turn it into an opera years before Gordon ever put pen to paper, but they always ran into the stone wall of the Steinbeck Foundation.

It took someone with an inside track to finally convince the foundation that the novel should become the basis for an opera. That someone was actor and stage director Eric Simonson, who was in the stage-play version when it premiered. "I knew Elaine Steinbeck (John Steinbeck's widow), because she was involved in the play," Simonson said during an interview at the Utah pera Production Studios. He was joined by conductor Grant Gershon and cast members Brian Leerhuber and Deanne Meek.

Simonson contacted Elaine Steinbeck after Minnesota Opera artistic director Dale Johnson pitched him the idea of an opera. "I called her up and she said, 'Great. Here's my lawyer's phone number."' That was in 1996. And after six years of dealing with the Steinbeck estate, they finally gave their permission - but not after checking out the Minnesota Opera, Utah Opera and Gordon, as well as approving Korie.

The novel is prime operatic material. Central to the story is the human tragedy of the Joad family, which reluctantly realizes it can no longer make a living as sharecroppers in the dried-out fields of Oklahoma.

When the opera starts, Tom Joad has just been released from prison. He comes home and urges his family to head west to find work in the fruit orchards of California's fertile Central Valley. Rather than having become hardened after four years in prison, Joad is optimistic and honestly believes he and his family can have a better life in California.

But once there, they face nothing but resentment, hostility and prejudice - as well as coming face to face with the farm owners' unbridled greed. The Joads and other families watch helplessly as the farm owners burn their crops to raise the price, rather than giving it to the starving families who picked it.

That becomes the turning point for Joad. He joins the strikers, gets caught up in their fight with the owners and their scabs, and he kills the man who beat to death Jim Casey, the preacher who baptized him when he was a boy.

"'The Grapes of Wrath' is what America is all about," said Leerhuber, who plays Tom Joad. "It's the American Dream. You're entitled to opportunity. You're not guaranteed anything, but you're entitled to it. That's why Tom is optimistic at the beginning."

When California doesn't turn out to be the promised land he had hoped for, Joad becomes disillusioned. "He witnesses the breakdown of that dream."

"The Grapes of Wrath" is an ensemble opera, but Tom Joad and Ma Joad gradually emerge as the two main characters around whom the others revolve. And while they're very close to each other, they're opposites. Tom is headstrong, quick-tempered and optimistic. Ma is the social conscience of the family. "Ma operates by a fundamental moral code," said Meek, who sings Ma. She is the one who holds the family together through all their hardships and pain, she said.

Bringing this vast story to life was no easy task, said Gordon. "I wanted to give a sense of the scope and epic nature of the work," he said. "I didn't want to do the same things that were done in the play and movie, and I think we achieved it."

Before opening night in Minnesota, Leerhuber was quoted as saying the music to "The Grapes of Wrath" is "Verdi on steroids." "I was talking about the orchestration," he said with a laugh.
"The book has the scope, length and emotional scale of opera. It's perfect." Gordon's score is grand opera in the best Verdi tradition, he added. Gordon is a composer who has benefited from a number of musical sources, all very American but at the same time very cosmopolitan. He likes to call himself "a trash can of influences," and that really isn't too far from the truth. He finds inspiration in American music from the greats who have gone before him.
"The Grapes of Wrath" is a melange of styles - Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein come readily to mind. But rather than being merely imitative, Gordon melds these diverse styles into his own distinct musical language. "He's an American composer," Meek said. "America is a melting pot, and American composers represent that. There are so many musical styles and voices, and Ricky isn't reticent about owning it. He's very open and acknowledges his influences."

"It's a complex score in its way, but there's an immediacy to it," said Gershon, who conducted the performances in Minnesota. "It's rare to have both."

What makes the work appealing is its tunefulness and accessibility, Gershon said. "But it presents the story in a straightforward, unvarnished way, with all of the pain and bleakness of the novel. Yet it makes it a completely compelling experience."

And Gordon has caught the eyes and ears of other opera companies around the country. Pittsburgh Opera will stage it, as will California's Opera Pacific. "There's been a good buzz out there," Simonson said. "The Lyric Opera (of Chicago) and the Met are coming out to see it (in Salt Lake City), and Minnesota will revive it in 2011." And Gershon, who is the director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, will present an extended suite of Gordon's score, including music that had been cut before its premiere in Minnesota, in May 2008.

"It's been heavenly," Gordon said.

The Utah production will vary slightly from the premiere in Minnesota. The language will be toned down, and the breast-feeding scene will be more discreet.

Also in the Utah Opera production from the original cast are Roger Honeywell as Jim Casey, Peter Halverson as Pa Joad, Robert Orth as Uncle John, Jesse Blumberg as Connie Rivers, and James Rollins as Noah. New to the cast for Utah are Jennifer Aylmer as Rosasharn, Mary Ann Dresher as Granma and Todd Miller as Grandpa. Members of the Utah Symphony will play.
- Edward Reichel, Deseret Morning News, 6 May 2007