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St. Paul is where "The Grapes of Wrath" are scored

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John Steinbeck's classic novel, "The Grapes of Wrath," has been made into a movie and a play and now an opera.
Photo by Michal Daniel

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie have spent much of the past month in a stark, exposed-brick basement where the cast of Minnesota Opera has been rehearsing the pair's new operatic adaptation of "The Grapes of Wrath." 

After three years of working on the score, they've come to the Minnesota Opera's Minneapolis studio space for the first rehearsals. Although they've had to make some cuts and revisions, as a whole, Gordon says, their operatic adaptation of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel seems to be working. 

"It happens sometimes that you go to put something on its feet and it's not quite what you intended. And you have to make peace with what it is and figure that out," Gordon says. "But this is completely and exactly what we meant it to be conceptually and construction-wise. If anything, it's even become more of that."

Gordon and Korie
Composer Ricky Ian Gordon (seated) and librettist Michael Korie acknowledge they faced doubts in the early stages, but in rehearsal they feel the spirit of "The Grapes of Wrath" has come alive.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

Gordon wasn't always so confident. Two years ago during an early workshop of the opera, he admitted he was scared. He questioned who he was to be writing an opera version of "The Grapes of Wrath." But from the first day of rehearsal in early January, Gordon says, it felt like the spirit of the story came alive. 

Steinbeck's classic Depression-era novel of the Joad family fleeing the Oklahoma Dust Bowl has been made into both a Hollywood movie and a Broadway play. 

In their operatic version, Gordon and Korie say they're using music to explore the emotional peaks and valleys of the story. "Music has a completely different role to play than words or words with images accompanying them," Gordon explains. "You're adding another landscape entirely."

"You don't have close-ups," Korie adds. "We can't see Henry Fonda's face. You can't see Ma Joad's dangling earrings and saying nothing, which says so much visually. Or you can't savor the passages in a book." 

When Ricky Ian Gordon first approached Korie to collaborate on "The Grapes of Wrath," the librettist thought the novel was too big to work as an opera. After re-reading the book, Korie felt that its narrative structure would fit three operatic acts. 

He also found a rhythm to Steinbeck's writing that seemed very musical. "There's one passage in Ma Joad's aria: She sings, 'This dead land is us. All its hardship is us. And the drought years and the flood years and the dust years all us.' Just speak them out loud and they give you a natural, musical rhythm.  I think Steinbeck wrote and crafted that and was thinking of that. I just found it and Ricky just set it."

Ma Joad
Deanne Meek, who sings the role of Ma Joad, says the demanding vocal range of the part requires her to pace herself like a marathon runner.
Photo by Michal Daniel

Deanne Meek, who has the role of Ma Joad, says it's not an easy sing. She's on stage for most of the opera and finds the role's wide vocal range role demanding. She says she has to pace herself like a marathon runner. 

During rehearsals Meek worked with composer Ricky Ian Gordon to revise Ma Joad's part to best fit her voice. "I did do a lot of requesting certain notes be brought down," she says. "If I sing up here too much in this spot, it will cost me a little bit later on."

The idea of adapting "The Grapes of Wrath" for the opera stage came from Minnesota Opera Artistic Director Dale Johnson back in 1995. He ran the concept by director Eric Simonson, who had acted in the play version of "The Grapes of Wrath." He's also worked in opera, television and film. 

Simonson liked the idea and now, a dozen years later, is directing the production. With a cast of 18 featured singers, a 45-member chorus and a 61-musician orchestra, the Minnesota Opera's production of "The Grapes of Wrath" is the biggest project Simonson has ever been a part of.

Eric Simonson
Director Eric Simonson says its taken 12 years for "The Grapes of Stage" to make it to the stage.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

"I think that everybody from the chorus to the principals to the creative team all understand that there's a responsibility that goes with 'The Grapes of Wrath,'" he says. "I think from the get-go you sensed in the room that there was an energy that this was something different. This is something special. This is not like another production of 'La Boheme.' This is not only a new opera, it's an opera that's a reflection of us and it's ours."

Like Eric Simonson, composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie are at home in both opera and theater. In fact Korie wrote the lyrics for a hit musical currently running on Broadway called "Grey Gardens." 

New York-based opera commentator Robert Marx says "The Grapes of Wrath" is a thoroughly American work that showcases its creators' backgrounds. "It works on a lot of different landscapes all at once," he says. "There are numbers that would be absolutely in place in a Broadway show and other numbers that are clearly operatic, including a beautiful septet for seven solo singers. There are large choruses. It's on a scale that goes way beyond what a Broadway show would be."

Last week Marx attended the first complete, two-piano run-through of "The Grapes of Wrath" in the Minnesota Opera's rehearsal space. He says he was thrilled with what he heard and saw and believes it will be a wonderful show.

Ma and Tom Joad
Deeane Meek as Ma Joad and Brian Leerhuber as Tom Joad in Act III of "The Grapes of Wrath."
Photo by Michal Daniel

Despite Ricky Ian Gordon's confidence that they've succeeded in creating a valid interpretation of Steinbeck's novel, librettist Michael Korie says they won't know for sure until Saturday night.

"For years I wrote operas and then I swore that I'd never write another one because you don't get previews," he explains. "You don't really learn what you've created until you see it in front of audience. So we're keeping our fingers crossed. Luckily, the people who do put on operas are familiar with this phenomenon of people arriving in their tuxedos and evening gowns and expecting it to be perfect the first night. We're hoping that it will be." 

Whatever happens opening night, "The Grapes of Wrath" won't struggle to find a life following its premiere. After the Minnesota Opera's performances at the Ordway Center in St. Paul, the production will be staged by the Utah Symphony and Opera, which co-commissioned the work. The Pittsburgh Opera and Houston Grand Opera are also slated to present the new opera.