'Wrath' all new for composer

Ricky Ian Gordon is best known as a composer of songs and musicals. He also has a couple of operas under his belt, but it's mainly as a writer of Broadway shows that he's found success.

With "The Grapes of Wrath," however, Gordon - interviewed in the Utah Opera production studios - has reached out to a wider audience and found himself firmly in the spotlight.

Thanks to the favorable reviews the opera received after its premiere at the Minnesota Opera in February, opera companies have been seeking him out and commissions have been pouring in.

At the moment, he and librettist Michael Korie are pitching an idea for an opera for the Met, and Minnesota Opera has commissioned a new work from Gordon to be premiered in 2013, after the company revives "The Grapes of Wrath" in 2011 - which will be the first time it has revived a new work.

Even though all this attention has been focused on Gordon as an opera composer, he isn't neglecting his musical roots. He and Korie have been commissioned to write a new musical for New York's Playwrights Horizons, as well as another show for Washington, D.C. "At least the next 10 years are planned out," Gordon joked.

Things could have turned out quite differently, and Gordon knows it.

This is his first large-scale work, and it could have flopped. Coming from the world of theater, the 51-year-old composer is used to having his new shows tried out in previews. But in the world of opera, previews don't exist. "I was so scared before opening night. I've always had previews, so we treated every rehearsal as a preview."

While the cast was rehearsing, Gordon and Korie were busy rewriting scenes. "We wanted a viable piece of theater," he said. It was a daunting undertaking for Gordon.

"The Grapes of Wrath" is his largest work to date, and he was stepping out into uncharted territory. "People commission operas, but not grand operas." And grand opera in the best 19th-century tradition is what "The Grapes of Wrath" is. "It's a true tragedy - that's how we approached it. It's really biblical, with floods, drought and devastation."

Originally, the opera ran some 4 1/2 hours in length, but Gordon cut 40 minutes from the score before it opened in Minnesota. And because of Utah Opera's budget restraints, Gordon had to cut another 20 minutes for its premiere here. "I felt like we had boiled it down as much as we could for Minnesota," Gordon said. "And with more, I felt like we were cutting into the story."

But Gordon is optimistic about the opera's shorter version. "We cut several scenes, but they were things you could remove. We didn't take out anything that affected the story, just some of the politics." And he seems to be happy with the result. "I can live with the cuts. It feels right."

For its Utah premiere, Gordon is still a bit apprehensive. "It's a different city, we had to make cuts and I don't know the theater. There are a lot of variables. But I hope it springs to life here as it did in Minnesota."

Those who weren't able to go to Minnesota to see the opera will have a chance to hear that version when it's released by the end of the year on CD, which Gordon is currently editing.
- Edward Reichel, Deseret Morning News, 6 May 2007