Illustration by Zina Saunders
Fresh from the much-lauded premiere last year of The Grapes of Wrath, an opera commissioned jointly by Minnesota Opera and Utah Opera, composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie are enjoying their newfound fame. Gordon is well-respected in the worlds of musical theater, opera, and art song and is known for his unusual ability to cross over effortlessly from one genre to another. Korie, also, has made a name for himself in opera and musical theater, most recently for his Tony-nominated work on the Broadway hit Grey Gardens.
Opera companies have sometimes struggled to find an audience in recent years. When people think of opera, many think of big, whopping voices; elaborate orchestration; huge sets with larger-than-life staging; and audiences made up only of the stodgy elite. It's often considered difficult, if not impossible, to understand. But opera, like other art forms seeking to survive and thrive for new audiences who have new expectations from entertainment, seems to be changing. Today's audiences want to be able to follow the story unfolding onstage, which in traditional opera could be difficult for newcomers, with words that were often in an unfamiliar language and music that sounded different from the popular melodies people were used to. Without diminishing the artistic beauty of classic opera, many new avenues are being explored in the quest to make the form feel more accessible.
Enter The Grapes of Wrath. With its blend of musical theater and opera, the work has found great success among new operagoers as well as among those who love grand opera. Fans of Gordon's and Korie's work have much to look forward to: A recording of The Grapes of Wrath is making its debut this spring on PS Classics. This month, the LA Master Chorale will perform a concert version at Disney Concert Hall in LA. The work will be performed by Pittsburgh Opera and Opera Pacific in the coming months. And, perhaps the biggest honors so far, Gordon and Korie have been commissioned to write a new work for New York's Metropolitan Opera and another for the Minnesota Opera's 50th anniversary. They are rapidly gaining a reputation as creators of great modern American opera. Hemispheres recently caught up with them to find out how and why their work is achieving such success.
Q: How wonderful is life for the two of you right now?
Korie: The barometer of wonderful keeps changing. Wonderful means you get a lot of great offers, but then you have to do the work. You think, "My life will be perfect when this goal is accomplished," and it was perfect for about 10 minutes after The Grapes of Wrath, and then suddenly we get offers to write three or four new operas, they all have to be done, and it ceases to be as wonderful.
Gordon: What's wonderful is that now people like Michael and me are really being given the opportunity to do our work and be heard in major places, which is really the goal. The goal isn't to be the big, fabulous hit of the world. The goal is to be asked to do your work with people you respect and admire, and just to be able to continue doing it and complain about it.
Q: How did you become partners in this business?
Gordon: Well, we live a block apart and we inhabit the same world. We frequently met at the corner bodega and we would say, "We have to work together sometime." Then at one point, we were both at a free moment in our careers, and Michael brought three lyrics to me that were so dazzling I just wanted to set them to music. We figured out how to work together, and when Minnesota Opera approached me about doing The Grapes of Wrath, I immediately said, "I want to do it with Michael Korie." And now, I want to do everything with Michael Korie, and, unfortunately, so do other people.
Q: What sorts of things inspire you to do what you do?
Korie: I always think that a piece should reflect upon the concerns of today. It doesn't have to do it directly. You can do it tangentially. What motivates us is story and how it sings, finding new ways to make the words sing.
Gordon: I am inspired by the cells the words make, their special rhythm. This is called prosody, word setting. I like to treat a lyric or a poem like a jewel in a setting. I would like to think that when you, the listener, hear it, you don't just hear the words, you hear what they mean, and what I meant them to mean.
Q: What sparked you to make opera a modern American enterprise?
Korie: The goal is to reach out to new audiences. At one point, a lot of opera companies were worried that their subscribership was aging, that they were losing their audience. A number of factors have changed that. You now get a translation projected right above the stage so you can understand what's happening. Actually, that helps English-speakers with English operas, too, because the way the sound is produced by singers sometimes makes it difficult to understand. The translation makes people look at it as drama and not as a purely musical or intellectual event. The second thing is that the younger generations have been raised on continuous music. Through rock and pop, listening to CDs, downloading things, they're used to continuous music without talking and used to storytelling through music, so it's an easy jump, actually, to the opera. It was the mass entertainment of its day when it was new. Now, film directors are interested in opera. And so somehow these mediums are talking to each other and crossing over. As a result, we got a lot of people when we did talks leading up to the opera saying, "I'm interested in this opera; I've never seen one before but I'm coming to this," and we would say, "Come meet us in the lobby afterward and tell us what you thought." And they did.
Q: There have been a number of great American composers and librettists, so why do you think you've been able to create what many are calling the first great American opera?
Korie: I think there have been many great American operas, but unfortunately U.S. culture continues to look to Europe for greatness and sometimes misses what's right in front of its nose. I would never say that there was one great American opera. I think one of the reasons people said The Grapes of Wrath is the great American opera is because it's based on the great American novel.
Gordon: I just went to City Opera and saw the revival of Vanessa. That is a great American opera, Porgy and Bess is a great American opera, Regina by Marc Blitzstein is a great American opera, and I mean great. We're just excited to be a part of it.
Q: How does what you do differ from traditional opera?
Korie: I felt very fulfilled that audiences who had never come to see an opera before came to The Grapes of Wrath, that the performances were sold out in 10-degrees-below-0 weather in February in a very big opera house. We took a gamble in that we wanted to write an opera that wasn't for intellectuals only but was for everyone, which really the book The Grapes of Wrath was. We wanted to find a way in opera, which some people consider the most elite of mediums, to reach people, to write an accessible opera with melodies. There were concerns that we would be rejected critically, but we weren't. It got very good artistic reception, and, even more rewarding, it got very good reception from the people. That was thrilling.
Gordon: I would say Michael and I come from a musical theater bent. So, for example, we do a lot of rewriting as we watch a work in development. Though it's opera, we craft it as a piece of music theater. It also differs from traditional opera vocally. Even though it is taxing vocally, the text is set in a very plainspoken way, so that ideally you would be able to hear every word. Singers are singing like they talk. Also, in this piece particularly, because it is such an "American" story, I kept thinking about what that meant formally. What do Americans relate to? And I thought, song—Americans relate to song.
Q: How does your cooperative creative process take you in a different direction from that of other famous collaborators in musical theater and in opera?
Gordon: Well, for one thing, we like each other (Gilbert and Sullivan, famously, did not). I am very impressed with Michael and what he does. His lyrics inspire me; I usually can't wait to set them. When I saw Grey Gardens, I was jealous because I wanted to take the song "Another Winter in a Summer Town" and set it myself. Mostly, it's his words, his storytelling, that propel my ideas. I could not have written The Grapes of Wrath with anyone else in the world.
Korie: In addition to collaboration between Ricky and me, other people can actually talk to us and ask, "Why did you do this? I read the book. Why did you change this?"
Gordon: Right now, Michael and I are rewriting some stuff in Act 1, and it's hard because you have to let go of some things you've grown very fond of. On the other hand, it makes a lot of sense because it's only by completing an opera and watching it many times that you're able to look back at what you wrote at the beginning and say that if this had references to what was coming later, it could be stronger. So now, in Act 1, we're sewing in some material from Act 3.
Korie: The concert at Disney Concert Hall this month is not the whole staged opera; it's about an hourlong concert version with chorus and principal singers and orchestra, so it will have to stand on its own without the staging. And with the opera itself, we're putting in big changes for Pittsburgh Opera, and those will be seen at Opera Pacific if they go well.
Q: Are workshops a part of that cooperative creative process?
Korie: Workshops and readings are something that we resent doing because we want to think it's perfect the way it is. Unfortunately, it never is, and it's a lesson we have to learn every single blessed time.
Gordon: With The Grapes of Wrath, the day we got to Minnesota, we read through the piece and for the first time heard our whole opera. I'm talking about a slugfest! When we got to the preacher's big, wonderful aria that we were so proud of, and the performer started singing it, it felt like an hour later he was still singing it. So we had to cut it to shreds.
Korie: Also at the first rehearsal, the actor playing Casey, the preacher, came up and said to me, "Casey has lost his faith in God and it really takes him the whole opera to find it again, and here you are mentioning the divine in everything I sing." And I said, "Well, I didn't think he had totally lost it," and he said, "No, I think he's lost it. I know what that's like personally." So I said, "This is why it's good to work with living librettists and composers," and we sat there and changed it during the weeks of rehearsals, just like it was a musical.
Gordon: The concert at Disney Hall is exciting because we're including a lot of what we had to cut from the opera. So people at Disney Hall are going to hear what will never be heard in the opera.
Korie: When you have three acts and two intermissions, you have to tell your story in a certain amount of time. Some of the original Grapes music was gorgeous symphonic choral works that could stand alone. Dramatically, we didn't have time to spend on those moments, but now at Disney Hall you can hear those pieces as no one has heard them.
Q: How did your commission from the Met come about, and do you know what it's going to be? Another classic from American literature?
Gordon: After Grapes opened, I got an e-mail from Peter Gelb (head of the Metropolitan Opera) congratulating me, and then I got a call from the Met about writing an opera. They said, "Of course you'll want to write it with Michael …," and I said, "Duh."
Korie: We have a story. I think we should refrain from mentioning it because there are legal issues that have to be worked out, but we definitely have excellent stories to work with that actually do not take place in America.
Gordon: That was a big deal for us, in terms of just acknowledging that we had done our big American piece. We have pointedly picked other projects that would ask very different things from us.
Q: What's next for the two of you?
Gordon: Minnesota is commissioning us to do an opera for its 50th anniversary, and we've chosen to adapt Giorgio Bassini's novel The Garden of the Finzi Continis, which also was adapted for an Academy Award–winning movie by Vittorio De Sica in 1971. We have joined forces with Craig Lucas to write a new musical for Playwrights Horizons, and I'm doing a new piece—book, music, and lyrics—about my family for The Signature Theater in Washington, DC. I also have a new piece premiering at Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival this summer, July 15, called Green Sneakers, for which I've written the libretto and am directing. And Minnesota Opera is reviving The Grapes of Wrath, something they have never done before.
Korie: The thing is that with every piece you do, you don't want to duplicate what you did before. It was a gamble to do Grapes, and it stretched us in ways that we didn't know we could go. In the new works that we're doing, we're looking to stretch again. It's always a challenge. It's always frightening. But it's always exciting.