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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Dust Up

Utah Opera’s The Grapes of Wrath looks to capture Steinbeck’s agitprop vision.



When composer Ricky Ian Gordon was asked nine years ago to create an opera based on John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, his first thought was that if he accepted the challenge, “you’re setting yourself up to be killed.nn

But reading the novel changed his mind.


“It had such a powerful effect on me,” he says. “How can you call yourself a composer if you turn down the opportunity to musicalize something so powerful, so cogent, so magnificent?nn

How successfully Gordon’s score manages to capture the spirit of Steinbeck’s text will become apparent May 12, when Utah Opera and Minnesota Opera co-premiere the work at Capitol Theatre. Inevitably, though, some audience members will also be curious to see how Grapes comes to grips with the politics of Steinbeck’s tale of migrant workers heading for California. Opera, arguably, isn’t an art form that readily comes to mind where incisive social criticism is concerned.


Gordon wasn’t the only one to struggle with misgivings over the project. Librettist Michael Korie initially thought the idea was “crack-brained.” But when he read Grapes, he found many operatic qualities: “The beauty of the language of Steinbeck’s prose, the rich imagery, [that] it’s constructed in three acts like a classic opera. There’s a darkness of tone that calls out for the richness of operatic singers,” Korie adds.


After a year of Gordon and Korie hammering out an outline with director Eric Simonson, Korie sat down to write the first act. “Steinbeck begins the novel describing the weather,” Korie says. “I struggled how to begin. I thought, ‘Trust Steinbeck.’ Instead of the [Oklahoma] dustbowl and milling Okies, let’s have bucolic greenery ... so we know what they’ve lost.”


Filmmaker John Ford and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company both tackled dramatic interpretations of the novel previously, but Utah Opera’s version seems determined to break new ground. It includes the dark ending Ford’s movie version infamously avoided. Unlike the play, it also boasts some of Steinbeck’s prose, delivered through a chorus.


But, in order for singers to deliver the emotional heights expected of an opera, changes had to be made. Opera singers trained to work with huge open vowel sounds and, Gordon says, “the King’s English,” had to learn a new accent. A voice and diction coach was brought into help them nail the Okie accent Gordon strove to write into the music.


Along with the sense of regionalism, Gordon also sought in his score what he calls “the influence of American vernacular.” Whether they be ragtime, jazz, the banjo, a barbershop quartet, soaring love songs or song-and-dance numbers, Gordon has welded together all he loves about American music.


With Gordon’s background in Broadway musicals, that commitment to populism isn’t surprising. What does seem a little surprising, though'if only because opera seems an unlikely place for agitprop'is the aggressive tone Gordon and Korie pursue when commenting on the novel’s contemporary political significance. For Gordon, the novel “questions the values of American capitalism, the lies that go along with the propaganda. … [Steinbeck] wrote about the same issues that are coming up now.” He cites the fence the United States is putting up on the Mexican border and the spin-doctoring-cum-cover-up that followed the friendly-fire death in Afghanistan of NFL football star-turned-U.S. Ranger Pat Tillman.


“The American dream needs to be fixed,” Gordon sighs. “It’s severely broken.nn

What role an operatic adaptation of Grapes of Wrath might play in fixing “the dream” is debatable, especially given the traditionally right-wing political leanings of some of the more well-off audience members opera attracts. But with Gordon’s populist and melodic ear, Korie’s attention to narrative and Steinbeck’s symbolism, perhaps those willing to embrace the social concerns and humanist values that lie at the novel’s sinuous heart might just be persuaded to give this work performed, in the art form, a try.


nCapitol Theatre
n50 W. 200 South
nMay 12, 14, 16 and 18
n7:30 p.m.
nMay 20
n2 p.m.