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Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath
Photo by Artman (illustrations)

(page 2 of 3)

“We wanted an American story,” Johnson says, “and I began to think, having recently re-read The Grapes of Wrath, ‘This has all the trappings of a Verdi opera: a large social picture, but one that’s really about a family’s journey.’ A lot of 19th-century opera has that massive scale but is really about one or two or three people.” Johnson discussed the Grapes idea with Simonson, an Academy Award–winning director and Tony nominee who moves easily between the worlds of opera, theater, television (Seinfeld), and film (he won an Oscar last year for directing a short documentary). Simonson agreed to direct, saying, “If American opera is determined to find a voice of its own, Grapes is a perfect match.”

The men decided on some musical influences for the production: Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin’s tune-filled folk-opera of the 1930s, and Show Boat, the 1920s musical that introduced serious story lines and complex orchestration to a previously frivolous form. Both are as American as jazz. “It didn’t make sense for the Joads, these Okies, to be singing in an avant-garde, abstract, European new-music way,” says Johnson. The search began for a composer—not in the classical-opera world, but in musical theater.

They found Ricky Ian Gordon, whose artistic family, the subject of a book called Home Fires, included a sister who was a founding editor of Rolling Stone and his mother, a singer, who named him Ricky Ian because, among other reasons, she thought it would look good on a marquee. “More adroitly than anyone since Leonard Bernstein, composer Ricky Ian Gordon straddles the line between theater and classical music,” one reviewer has said of him. Gordon’s opera pieces are performed in theaters, his theater pieces in opera houses. His art songs have been sung by the most popular of Broadway thrushes. But lately he’s felt more fulfilled in opera than on the Great White Way.

Opera has benefited from Broadway’s increasing corporatization. To cut risks, producers of musicals are tightening budgets and focusing on safe stories, prompting many creative minds to defect. “Opera is an enclave for artists now,” says Simonson. Gordon jokes that musical producers are so tightfisted that “they want you to orchestrate for kazoo and tin drum and a cast of one…. There’s no room for creativity now, so you look for a place where that’s welcome,” he says. “Suddenly, in opera, you can play on a bigger canvas.” In signing on to compose Grapes, Gordon received the biggest canvas of his career: a million-dollar artistic budget, a $400,000 production budget, and more performers than are featured in most Broadway shows: 18 principals, a 45-member chorus, and a 61-musician orchestra.

The librettist Michael Korie was contacted next, despite some hesitation over his reputation for hard-edged, modern storytelling. (Korie’s best-known opera to date is Harvey Milk, about San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor, who was gunned down in 1978.) “It seemed like the wrong style for this folksy vernacular [in Grapes],” says Johnson. But Korie was immediately drawn to the project. “I think all of us want to move [opera] forward,” he says. “And in some way, we’re moving it forward by moving it backward.”

The two neighbors went to work, collaborating closely. Every morning at about quarter to 8, Gordon would call Korie before coming over, or simply sing his latest song parts over the phone. Korie split Steinbeck’s story into three acts, conceiving a grand production with a running time of more than three hours. Gordon, in turn, brought the epic down to earth by dividing it into discrete, tuneful songs, more like a musical than most operas—that is to say, more American.

Classical operas differ from musicals in the demands they place on performers—and audiences. Both are theatrical forms, of course, stories enacted onstage with rising and falling action, good guys and bad guys. But opera requires vocal virtuosity, all parts being sung—without amplification—for three hours or longer, the music meandering far more than in a musical number. In musicals, dance and dialogue break up bursts of show tunes, giving performers a chance to act while their lungs rest, or at least to show the audience a little leg. Grapes splits the difference: no dialogue, but real songs.

Gordon’s music evokes the wide-open spaces Aaron Copland traversed in Appalachian Spring and his other distinctly American orchestral works, helping to replant opera a continent away from its roots. Opera in the United States has often been caught between not sounding operatic enough to be taken seriously by Europeans and not sounding Broadway enough to be appreciated by average Americans. Not so long ago, as recounted in the book The American Opera Singer, U.S. performers felt compelled to change their names to something Italian-sounding to be taken seriously on the international opera scene, so that Signore Giovanni Chiari di Broccolini was actually John Clarke from Brooklyn. More recently, in a commentary entitled “Why doesn’t anyone like American opera?” the editor of US Opera Web, an online magazine, observed that in the 2000-2001 opera season, American operas accounted for only 92 of the 1,000 performances nationwide. Successful American opera, even in the United States, is an anomaly.

Though Korie felt that Grapes had the story and the music to succeed, he was initially dogged by a question: what sort of statement would it make to stage a story critiquing the rich in an opera house? “The opera houses were built by robber barons on the backs of the Joads,” Korie says. But ultimately he concluded that Steinbeck would have relished the chance to raise questions of class and morality with such an audience—to indict them and, with hope, to change them.

“He was giving [the rich] a great big f— you,” Korie says, “and where better to do that than in an opera house?”

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