Grapes of Wrath
(page 1 of 3)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.”
Photo by Michael Crouser
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.