Grapes of Wrath

If he had never opened his mouth, the young man standing beside the piano in the Minnesota Opera Center one March morning in 2005 could have passed for a rock star. A member of Britain's too-cool Coldplay, perhaps, with his tousled hair and his dress shirt untucked and unbuttoned to dance-club level. But he did open his mouth, and out came a sound so rich and resonant and throbbing with vibrato that it could only be the voice of an opera singer.

Only, this was no ordinary opera. Most people's idea of opera involves enormous women singing about adultery with Teutonic gods, draped in outfits professional figure skaters would find tacky. This, however, was an early version of The Grapes of Wrath, which will receive its world premiere this month at the Ordway Center for the Arts in St. Paul.

Co-commissioned by the Minnesota Opera and the Utah Symphony & Opera at a cost of nearly $1.5 million, it is one of only a dozen or so grand operas likely to premiere in North America this year. This first operatic adaptation of John Steinbeck's provocative novel is unlike anything else on the scene today.

Some bastard put me up to this, sings the scruffy baritone at the rehearsal, and Dale Johnson, artistic director for the Minnesota Opera, remarks, "I like that you can say 'bastard' in opera." And he's right: Mozart said it in his operas and so did many other classical composers - when their characters weren't fooling around and fighting like guests on The Jerry Springer Show. (Perhaps not surprisingly, a production called Jerry Springer: The Opera has debuted in London.) But somewhere along the way, much of opera became art for art's sake, and the general population turned to watching Charlie Chaplin fall on his can instead. It was Johnson's hope that commissioning the tragic story of the Joad family's battle against the rich, the government, the weather, and the Man would put populism back in opera. And he assembled a creative team with just the right skills to do it.

"You can get more excited, get a little out of control," suggests composer Ricky Ian Gordon, explaining a scene to the baritone. "What's behind it is like, f - you!'" Gordon is bouncing behind the piano like an extra from Oklahoma! He's wearing jeans, a green plaid jacket, and a purple baseball cap. He looks like a young Paul Molitor, and he tends to emphasize a point by swinging his arms over his head, like he's waving a runner home.

Gordon and Michael Korie, the show's lyricist (or librettist, as the job is known in opera), live a block away from each other on Manhattan's Upper West Side, near Lincoln Center. Gordon, especially, sounds like a New Yorker: "water" is "watah" and "talk" is "tawk." They're not the first people, in other words, who would seem to relate to the "Okies" who fled the Dust Bowl during the Depression. With strong ties to Broadway - Korie's new musical, Grey Gardens, recently opened there to critical acclaim - the duo weren't the obvious choice to create grand opera. Yet they're perfect for what the Minnesota Opera had in mind: a sort of hybrid opera-musical that could reclaim a larger audience for the form.

"Opera needs, as any business does, new products," explains Minnesota Opera president and CEO Kevin Smith. "The problem with contemporary opera is that it appeals to only part of the existing opera audience. You need to grow your audience, and you want a new work to be more popular than the existing works. You want a hit show."

The Minnesota Opera believes that Grapes, more than 10 years in the making, could be that show. If opera is "an exotic and irrational entertainment," as Samuel Johnson cheekily defined it in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, then Grapes is nearly the opposite: familiar, earthy, as rational and American as a Sousa march. "It's not a head trip," says Korie, "but a heart trip, a gut trip." It is an opera, in other words, that doesn't behave like an opera.

Opera was once the television of Europe. The art evolved from musical pageants in Italy during the 16th century and was soon supplying theatrical productions both lowbrow and high: comedies, dramas, and enough sex and violence to keep the chatterboxes of the day preoccupied. Inasmuch as Mozart was the Bono of the 18th century and Giusseppe Verdi the Paul McCartney of the 19th, opera was pop music, too. Venetian delivery boys are said to have whistled Verdi's tunes as they worked. The history of opera in America, however, has always been different.

For one thing, while opera was peaking in Europe in the 1850s, much of America was still a literal wilderness. Though towns big and small, including Fairmont and Aitkin in Minnesota, sprouted so-called opera houses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the venues saw more ditch-diggers than divas-nearly all were bawdy vaudeville houses, using the word "opera" in their names to sound respectable. Operas, then as now performed mostly in European languages, were an elite import. In fact, when the Metropolitan Opera opened in New York in 1883, its social function - as a place for the nouveau riche to feel as cosmopolitan as their European counterparts - initially overshadowed the art. Newspaper critics, it's said, were so preoccupied with describing the audiences that they sometimes failed to mention the name of the night's opera. By the time the Marx Brothers lampooned, nay, harpooned the medium in their film A Night at the Opera, their Depression-weary fans were predisposed to thinking of opera patrons as stuffy, spats-wearing aristocrats. When Groucho is compelled to meet someone at the opera, he arrives as late as possible by carriage and complains to the driver, "I told you to slow that nag down. On account of you, I almost heard the opera."

Most Americans, it seems, preferred the simpler pleasures of knockabout comedians and English-language musicals. (A Night at the Opera, in fact, is a musical, with pop singers performing operatic songs.) The situation didn't improve in the mid-20th century when opera followed other classical arts down a modernist path of abstraction and intellectualism - distancing the form, many critics believe, from potentially broader audiences. "The early American operas were so highbrow," says Eric Simonson, the director of The Grapes of Wrath. "I don't know how people stood it."

Admittedly, the Minnesota Opera was formed in this avant-garde aesthetic, in 1963, as part of the Walker Art Center's performing-arts program. It focused on contemporary operas, producing more new works in its first 25 years, Dale Johnson believes, than any other troupe in North America if not the world. In the 1980s, however, rising production costs and receding funding slowed the commissioning of new work to its recent trickle. Grapes, then, is a return to form - albeit a form that has changed dramatically in the last decade.

The American renaissance of opera began in the 1980s with the projection of subtitles, which helped the repertoire to be better understood. More recently, audiences have embraced such modern American operas as Little Women and Dead Man Walking, both emotional, character-driven stories. "Composers are allowing themselves to be more romantic in nature and less abstract in their music-making, unafraid of writing tunes again," Johnson says.

The changes appear to be paying off. According to Opera America, the country's leading booster of the form, opera audiences grew 35 percent between 1982 and 1992, and rose another 8 percent over the next decade. While opera draws only about 3 percent of American adults to its performances each year, and may never enjoy the popularity of Broadway's The Phantom of the Opera, it's streaking past classical music and dance as the fastest-growing performing art in the country.

Certainly, opera still has an image problem. For many people, on a scale of esotericism, it falls somewhere between Mongolian throat singing and Yoko Ono. This is an art, after all, whose most popular performers just a couple of centuries ago were castratos - men who sacrificed their reproductive futures so they could forever sing like girls. Johnson may know that the great 19th-century operas addressed issues of need and oppression - "things that are still relevant today," he says. And he may believe that music, even more than words or pictures or movement, is a primal pipeline to our emotions, making opera the "most relevant art form out there." But many others don't buy this - Minneapolis business owners, say, who believe opera music to be so annoying to urban youth that they blast it onto downtown sidewalks to discourage loitering. So about 10 years ago, Johnson and Smith began conceiving an opera that would bridge the divide.

"We wanted an American story," Johnson says, "and I began to think, having recently re-read The Grapes of Wrath, 'This has all the trappings of a Verdi opera: a large social picture, but one that's really about a family's journey.' A lot of 19th-century opera has that massive scale but is really about one or two or three people." Johnson discussed the Grapes idea with Simonson, an Academy Award-winning director and Tony nominee who moves easily between the worlds of opera, theater, television (Seinfeld), and film (he won an Oscar last year for directing a short documentary). Simonson agreed to direct, saying, "If American opera is determined to find a voice of its own, Grapes is a perfect match."

The men decided on some musical influences for the production: Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin's tune-filled folk-opera of the 1930s, and Show Boat, the 1920s musical that introduced serious story lines and complex orchestration to a previously frivolous form. Both are as American as jazz. "It didn't make sense for the Joads, these Okies, to be singing in an avant-garde, abstract, European new-music way," says Johnson. The search began for a composer - not in the classical-opera world, but in musical theater.

They found Ricky Ian Gordon, whose artistic family, the subject of a book called Home Fires, included a sister who was a founding editor of Rolling Stone and his mother, a singer, who named him Ricky Ian because, among other reasons, she thought it would look good on a marquee. "More adroitly than anyone since Leonard Bernstein, composer Ricky Ian Gordon straddles the line between theater and classical music," one reviewer has said of him. Gordon's opera pieces are performed in theaters, his theater pieces in opera houses. His art songs have been sung by the most popular of Broadway thrushes. But lately he's felt more fulfilled in opera than on the Great White Way.

Opera has benefited from Broadway's increasing corporatization. To cut risks, producers of musicals are tightening budgets and focusing on safe stories, prompting many creative minds to defect. "Opera is an enclave for artists now," says Simonson. Gordon jokes that musical producers are so tightfisted that "they want you to orchestrate for kazoo and tin drum and a cast of one". There's no room for creativity now, so you look for a place where that's welcome," he says. "Suddenly, in opera, you can play on a bigger canvas." In signing on to compose Grapes, Gordon received the biggest canvas of his career: a million-dollar artistic budget, a $400,000 production budget, and more performers than are featured in most Broadway shows: 18 principals, a 45-member chorus, and a 61-musician orchestra.

The librettist Michael Korie was contacted next, despite some hesitation over his reputation for hard-edged, modern storytelling. (Korie's best-known opera to date is Harvey Milk, about San Francisco's first openly gay city supervisor, who was gunned down in 1978.) "It seemed like the wrong style for this folksy vernacular [in Grapes]," says Johnson. But Korie was immediately drawn to the project. "I think all of us want to move [opera] forward," he says. "And in some way, we're moving it forward by moving it backward."

The two neighbors went to work, collaborating closely. Every morning at about quarter to 8, Gordon would call Korie before coming over, or simply sing his latest song parts over the phone. Korie split Steinbeck's story into three acts, conceiving a grand production with a running time of more than three hours. Gordon, in turn, brought the epic down to earth by dividing it into discrete, tuneful songs, more like a musical than most operas - that is to say, more American.

Classical operas differ from musicals in the demands they place on performers - and audiences. Both are theatrical forms, of course, stories enacted onstage with rising and falling action, good guys and bad guys. But opera requires vocal virtuosity, all parts being sung - without amplification - for three hours or longer, the music meandering far more than in a musical number. In musicals, dance and dialogue break up bursts of show tunes, giving performers a chance to act while their lungs rest, or at least to show the audience a little leg. Grapes splits the difference: no dialogue, but real songs.

Gordon's music evokes the wide-open spaces Aaron Copland traversed in Appalachian Spring and his other distinctly American orchestral works, helping to replant opera a continent away from its roots. Opera in the United States has often been caught between not sounding operatic enough to be taken seriously by Europeans and not sounding Broadway enough to be appreciated by average Americans. Not so long ago, as recounted in the book The American Opera Singer, U.S. performers felt compelled to change their names to something Italian-sounding to be taken seriously on the international opera scene, so that Signore Giovanni Chiari di Broccolini was actually John Clarke from Brooklyn. More recently, in a commentary entitled "Why doesn't anyone like American opera?" the editor of US Opera Web, an online magazine, observed that in the 2000-2001 opera season, American operas accounted for only 92 of the 1,000 performances nationwide. Successful American opera, even in the United States, is an anomaly.

Though Korie felt that Grapes had the story and the music to succeed, he was initially dogged by a question: what sort of statement would it make to stage a story critiquing the rich in an opera house? "The opera houses were built by robber barons on the backs of the Joads," Korie says. But ultimately he concluded that Steinbeck would have relished the chance to raise questions of class and morality with such an audience - to indict them and, with hope, to change them.

"He was giving [the rich] a great big f - you," Korie says, "and where better to do that than in an opera house?"

In early spring of 2005, at the Minnesota Opera Center, several scenes from Grapes were previewed by a select group of Minnesota Opera board members and other devoted patrons. The audience was out in polished cufflinks and elegant shawls. Backstage, the actors, outfitted in overalls and '30s-style house dresses, pretended to square dance.

Though John Steinbeck's novel eventually won the Pulitzer Prize, The Grapes of Wrath was widely banned when first published in 1939. The book's coarse language and frank descriptions of exploitive agrarian practices, as well as its depiction of an unscrupulous minister, were too much for many schools. As recently as 1986, a man in Kentucky was reportedly arrested for possessing the novel. The Joad family's fruitless search for steady work; the greed of agribusiness; and the injustice toward migrant workers that drives Tom Joad, the protagonist, to murder have been the basis of an award-winning movie (starring Henry Fonda, in 1940) and a Broadway play (in 1990, with the Grapes' director, Eric Simonson, playing a car salesman). But neither adaptation, Korie says, told the story as faithfully as the opera will.

"The Broadway version dumped all of Steinbeck's voice and just used the dialogue," he says. "That left about two-thirds of the book out." Neither was the film able to be as "wrathful" as Steinbeck was, he says, given the limitations of time. The opera, being much longer, will have time to build up a terrible wall of tragedy before ramming the characters into it.

As the preview began, a woman sang "Last time there was rain," as a banjo, saxophone, harmonica, and guitar swept the audience back to the Dust Bowl. "Howdies" peppered the dialogue, and blue notes bent the tunes toward Gershwin-style jazz. At one point, the Joads were described as "shitville hicks" then more or less lived up to the name: a randy grandpa and grandma whooped it up in a goofy dance to a song called "Tricky Old Devil." The grandfolks appeared senile, drunk, or both. The audience looked uneasy.

Following the preview, Korie, Gordon, and Simonson took questions from the audience. Gordon was wearing a '30s-style newsboy cap, prompting a woman to exclaim, "He's so cute!" He was also under fire: many questioned whether the grandparents' dance undermined the seriousness of the story. Korie admitted it would be tough, given the gravity of Grapes overall, to make audiences feel they have permission to laugh. "I think they're feeling it's more 'Grapes of Wrathy' when it's sad," he said. Nonetheless, he said he might press Gordon to change the grandparents' scene.

Gordon, for his part, said, "I feel bad. But I'm not going to do anything about it."

He DID do something about it, though. The whole "Tricky Old Devil" scene - gone. There were other cuts, too - 650 bars of music, in fact - made during a workshop in Los Angeles, where Gordon, Korie, Simonson, the orchestra director, and the artistic directors of both the Minnesota and Utah operas gathered to go through the opera note by note.

"It was not an easy week, I'm going to admit that," Gordon says. "There was no clawing and fighting, but there was friction and tension. Michael, he gets mercenary almost. He forgets that he already has scissors in his hand and gets out an ax."

"Tricky Old Devil" wasn't even the hardest cut for Gordon. That would be a sequence Gordon wrote during an artists' residency in Wyoming, a storm scene he spent two weeks composing. The Grapes creative team simply found the sequence unnecessary - then had to convince Gordon.

When Gordon was first approached about working on Grapes, he was intimidated by the material and almost demurred. "I thought, 'Who the hell am I?' I felt I had no right to come near it." But soon he couldn't let go. "The danger is that you make the wrong cuts and end up Band-Aiding things later," Gordon says. "I'm always the one who wants to keep everything."

Eventually, Gordon was won over to losing the storm scene. "Omigod, it works perfectly [without it]," he remembers thinking. And though Gordon says its loss hurt, he isn't sure how much the music - any of it - matters in the end. "When the whole piece works, it's the story that wins; it transcends what I did and what Michael did." This belief hasn't stopped Gordon from fretting, though. Sometimes the pressure of living up to the story, much less creating the next great hope for grand opera, has been enough to make him literally sick to his stomach.

In mid-June of last year, Gordon was in high spirits. He had recently received a couple of honors, including a special citation at the prestigious Obie Awards for one of his plays. His music had been included on a new CD by singer Audra McDonald, the current darling of Broadway. And five more opera companies were interested in producing Grapes after its premiere. Better yet, the opera was finished. There was nothing left to do but proofread the piece before shipping out to Minnesota to stage it. "It feels like a miracle," Gordon said.

Only at the opera's premiere, however, will the sum total of everyone's labor become evident. There are no full-length previews for an opera of this size; the creators will witness the show with the first night's audience. The team's larger achievement will likely take longer to appreciate. The standard for success in opera is different than that of musical theater, where runs can extend for months, years, or decades. Even at European opera's healthiest point, 150 years ago, lengthy runs were not the norm. The casts and the orchestras are simply too big. Equally weighty are the masterworks that loom in opera's past - to premiere a new work in a field whose practitioners are household names centuries after their deaths is to risk disappointment if not presumption. And critics are often happy to pile it on.

"I think our field suffers a great deal from the Beethoven's 10th Symphony syndrome," says Opera America president and CEO Marc Scorca - any new effort inevitably falls short of the standard set by the genre's grandest achievements. "I don't want to burden [Grapes] by expecting it to be another masterpiece". I'm not expecting it to be the benchmark for new American opera in the 21st century."

Korie hopes other opera aficionados will be as open-minded. He remembers, for instance, those at the Minnesota Opera Center who resisted the hoedown scene. "They sat there like they were in church," he says. But Grapes wasn't designed for critics or buffs. It's aimed at new audiences, who don't yet know that opera is, as Korie describes it, "the ultimate theater," a spectacle of entirely sung performance - "the most extreme kind of acting."

Johnson believes his new opera could strike a chord that people won't soon forget. "Verdi's audiences were often humming his tunes as they walked down the street," he says. "I'm hoping The Grapes of Wrath will have that kind of immediate audience appeal."
- Tim Gihring, Minnesota Monthly, February 2007