In newest opera form, ‘Grapes of Wrath’ still speaks truth

Ricky Ian Gordon

BY PATRICIA CORRIGAN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

When the Minnesota Opera asked Ricky Ian Gordon some years ago to compose an opera based on John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Gordon had not read the book and  didn’t want to say so. 

“I lied and said I needed time to reread it,” Gordon said, laughing.  

Then he read it. 

“I was shattered by this book, and I realized that writing the opera scared me more than anything I could ever say yes to, so I knew I had to say yes,” Gordon said. “I figured if it happened, it would really be something for a Jewish kid from Long Island to write an opera based on ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ ” 

Long story short: Minnesota Opera got the rights to the story and, with Utah Opera, commissioned Gordon to write the opera with librettist Michael Korie. It premiered in March 2007. 

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Now, Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL) will premiere a new version of “The Grapes of Wrath” and Gordon, 60, is coming to town to talk about that and some of his other work.

Gordon will speak at 6 p.m. March 22 at the Jewish Community Center’s Arts & Education Building, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, at a free event co-sponsored by the Gesher Music Festival and OTSL. (For tickets, visit bit.ly/2mkPUJf.) Musicians from the Gesher Music Festival will perform two short selections from Gordon’s autobiographical opera “Green Sneakers” and will accompany him on selections from “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Gordon, who is considered a leading writer of vocal music that spans art song, opera and musical theater, spoke by phone last week from his home in New York.

“I can usually sing what I have written — not like singers who perform in my operas, of course, but in my own way,” he said.

Recent productions of his work include “Morning Star,”  “27” (presented at OTSL in 2014), “A Coffin in Egypt,”  “Rappahannock County,” “Sycamore Trees,” “Green Sneakers,” “Orpheus and Eurydice” and “My Life with Albertine.” 

Gordon recently completed an opera based on Giorgio Bassani’s novel “The Garden of the Finzi Continis” and is working on commissions from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center Theatre, and other opera companies and theaters.

He has won numerous national awards, and his songs have been performed by such artists as Renee Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, Nathan Gunn, Judy Collins, Kelli O’Hara, Audra MacDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Nicole Cabell, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Frederica von Stade, Andrea Marcovicci, Harolyn Blackwell and Betty Buckley. He also teaches throughout the country. (For more on the composer, see rickyiangordon.com.)

When “The Grapes of Wrath” premiered, it was hailed in Opera magazine as “a major new American opera, one that is likely to stand the test of time.” Opera News magazine called it “one of the masterpieces of the 21st century.”

So why the revision?

“It premiered in 2007, the height of when everybody had money, and it was a huge, three-act opera with a 60-piece orchestra and a gigantic chorus,” Gordon said, laughing.  “We were aware of the irony of this big, expensive opera about poor tenant farmers. But at the time, people were scalping tickets like they do now for ‘Hamilton.’ ” 

One result of the show’s success was that opera companies across the country realized new operas could be successful, and they started creating initiatives for new work, Gordon said. 

“Then suddenly in 2008, nobody had any money,” he said. “Everybody was broke, endowments all were shrunk and nobody could afford to do ‘Grapes’ in its original form.” 

For some time, Gordon has known a new version was in order, one that was more “performable” than the original. 

“For a long time, ‘Grapes’ was so dear to me, so important, that the idea of truncating made me sick,” he said. 

Time passed, and Gordon and Korie were more than willing to look at the opera again with James Robinson, artistic director at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.    

“It was hard, but also exciting,” Gordon said. “It felt like creating a new piece, not like destroying an old one. We’ve turned it into a two-act opera and looked at ways the principals could hold more of a burden. Now, all the soloists are members of the Joad family.”

OTSL will present “The Grapes of Wrath” at evening performances May 27 and 31 and June 9, 15 and 25, and at matinees June 17 and 21. (For details, see opera-stl.org.) 

Gordon is certain that the new version will succeed. 

“I trust that the story will resonate, that what is there will communicate and what isn’t there will be effective ghosts,” he said. “If a piece is strong, that happens whether it’s five minutes long or three hours.”

Plus, the timing seems right to Gordon. 

“ ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is a sad story that  that grows, rather than diminishes, in pertinence,” he said. “The story seems especially resonant at the moment, a story of people being sold a bill of goods. That seems to be what’s happening to us now with our huckster government.”

While in St. Louis, Gordon will speak at 7 p.m. March 23 in Lee Auditorium at the Missouri History Museum. The film version of “The Grapes of Wrath” will be shown at 7:30 p.m. March 16 at the Winifred Moore Auditorium at Webster University.

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