Group is turning ‘Grapes’ into opera wine
By Patrick Condon
MINNEAPOLIS — If John Steinbeck’s fictional Joad family had actually existed, they’d probably be just about the last people interested in watching an opera.
That irony points to the central challenge for the makers of an opera based on Steinbeck’s classic novel, "The Grapes of Wrath" — staying true to the quintessentially American story of dirt-poor, itinerant sharecroppers in an art form typically considered elitist in the United States.
"Just mentioning the words ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘opera’ — people think it’s nuts. When they first approached me, I thought it was nuts," said Michael Korie, who wrote the libretto, or lyrics, for the production. "I thought, you know, it’s too big. It’s too American. It’s about poor farmers."
So instead of trying to make "The Grapes of Wrath" fit into the traditional boundaries of opera, Korie and composer Ricky Ian Gordon decided they would redefine those boundaries. The fruit of their efforts has its world premiere Saturday in St. Paul, the first of several engagements around the country. Its creators hope they’ve crafted a work that will bring new audiences for an art form long thought of as irrelevant by American audiences — if they’ve even thought of it at all.
"I’m hoping people will want to see it — regular people," Korie said. It would be particularly appropriate, he said, if the populist story of the Joads and their forced migration from Oklahoma to California in search of a better life helps to break down opera’s snobby reputation.
"This book was very much written in the spirit, coming out of the Depression, that things have got to change," Gordon said. "I don’t think you can affect social change in an opera company. But we’re bringing this opera with its furious message into this bastion of money and respectability."
In Europe in the 1800s, opera was an art form for the masses. "People would walk down the street humming the latest Puccini. The divas were the movie stars of their day," Gordon said.
But it never caught on like that in America. While most major American cities still have opera companies, regular attendance at the opera is widely perceived to be the province of the wealthy, the educated, the elite. Most contemporary American works of opera, Korie said, are challenging in theme and atonal in sound.
In composing the music, Gordon went in the other direction.
"Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear people humming some of the tunes in the bathroom during intermission," said Brian Leerhuber, the baritone who sings the lead role of Tom Joad. "You can’t say that about many new American operas."
Gordon said the music won’t strike audiences as particularly "operatic." It has similarities, he said, to American composers like Aaron Copland but also throws in everything from jazz and blues to boogie-woogie and square-dance music. The 70-piece orchestra includes not only traditional instrumentalists but also performers playing harmonica, banjo and guitar.
"I’m a trash can in terms of what I’ve listened to my whole life, and you’re going to hear just about all of it," Gordon said.
Bringing it even further down to earth, Korie’s libretto sticks to the "Okie" vernacular of Steinbeck’s book. ("Well sir, we’ll be startin’ ‘fore long now. An’, by God, they’s grapes out there, just a-hangin’ over inta the road," goes one snatch of representative dialogue.)
The final product, Gordon and Korie said, will strike many as a hybrid between an opera and a traditional Broadway musical. The elaborate sets — "They really recreated the Dust Bowl," Korie said — add to the overall theatrical experience.
After its short run in St. Paul, the production goes to Salt Lake City and Houston. Its creators are hoping their bow to modern audiences and the universality of the Joads’ tragic struggle will guarantee that productions of "The Grapes of Wrath" are mounted around the country for years to come.
"It’s as relevant today as the day it was written, and I think people are going to be struck anew by that," said Deanne Meek, the mezzo soprano who sings the part of Ma Joad. "These are issues that are present in our own backyards. You know, we’re talking about building fences to keep people out of this country. And here’s a call for compassion, and equality, and care, and treating people like human beings."