Grapes of Wrath
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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.
Photo by Michael Crouser
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 is senior writer of Minnesota Monthly.