‘Grapes’ ripe with essence of Steinbeck

Times Staff Writer

“The Grapes of Wrath” has become, here in the frozen North, an opera. Many composers over the years have wanted to make the classic American 1939 novel into one, but the John Steinbeck estate and the author’s publisher always said no. The green light was finally given when Minnesota Opera suggested that the composer be Ricky Ian Gordon, an exuberant New York songwriter with one foot on Broadway, one in the Copland style and an extra foot or two available for rhapsodic operatic elaborations. He passed, apparently, the publisher’s plain-speaking, easy-listening Americana test.

Gordon’s “Grapes of Wrath,” with a strong, literate libretto by Michael Korie, is a success. The production by Eric Simonson is first-rate. The cast of about 50 is outstanding. Grant Gershon, the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s music director, conducts with cogency.

The opera, like Steinbeck’s novel, sprawls. At the performance Thursday night in the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, a few patrons did flee into the bitter cold after the second intermission. But at this, the third performance (the premiere was Feb. 10), the sense of excitement was unmistakable.


Minnesotans may not be famed for their effusiveness -- at least if Garrison Keillor, who scanned the scene eagle-eyed Thursday from his seat in the rear of the hall, is to be believed. But they happily hummed the opera’s hummable tunes in the lobby during intermissions. The company has already sold out all copies of the libretto.

As far as I was concerned -- and this is a minority opinion -- the nearly four-hour opera was too short. Had Gordon and Korie been allowed to follow their original bliss and create a two-night or more American “Ring” cycle, I would have gladly returned for more.

“Grapes of Wrath” works not because it is true to Steinbeck’s style but because it honors his spirit. The story, of a Dust Bowl family displaced from its failing Oklahoma farm and of the family’s dispiriting flight to California, is the classic refugee plight that continues to be played out globally. Steinbeck’s Joads could be illegal Mexican workers in the U.S., victims of Hurricane Katrina or Asians and Africans sold into the international slave trade. They could be among those from 60 different nations, stateless, temporarily living in a refugee camp outside Vienna.

These are not exactly Steinbeck’s Joads; a leaner, more California music would be needed for that. Steinbeck’s musical buddies in the ‘30s included Henry Cowell and John Cage, and his own musical tastes were closer to folk song than Broadway. But Gordon and Korie are hope-seekers. Tragedy overcomes the Joad clan, but Gordon has a limitless reserve of song for them.

Gordon bucks his Joads up with echoes of Gershwin’s “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin.’ ” He finds humor where he can. Used-car salesmen are finger-snapping sharks. A desert truck stop swings.

Gordon also tugs at the heart. Ma Joad has the leading role. She is a compassionate Verdian tower of strength, magnificently sung by mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek. But the opera’s greatest glory is Gordon’s ability to musically flesh out the entire 11-member Joad clan, from the youngest, Winfield (wonderfully realized by 11-year-old Henry Bushnell) to Granma (the tireless American opera great Rosalind Elias). Each has a distinct musical style. Each is sympathetic.

Gordon’s other great achievement is to merge Broadway and opera. There is a limitation to this. The emotions can seem a little simplistic, and he has a tendency to give us three or four climaxes when one would do. But the there-is-no-stopping-him quality has its considerable charms, and it is greatly enhanced by his firm operatic control over ensembles and his sheer love for the operatic voice.

Simonson’s production utilizes a simple set by Allen Moyer that is inventively enhanced by video backdrops evoking the bleak setting of dust storms and desert while always keeping the cast the center of attention. Choreographer Doug Varone moves the chorus with a fluidity that verges on magic. The entire production luxuriously unfolds.

The political undercurrent of Steinbeck’s novel is not neglected. The Joad family’s journey to California is a tragedy because these people don’t understand the power of those who abuse them. Again Verdi seems Gordon and Korie’s model for showing the individual struggling against the system. Occasionally Gordon turns maudlin, as when Tom Joad, the eldest son and the family’s strongest figure after his mother, gets a little sappy at the end. But Korie and Gordon keep him complex, and another of the opera’s strengths is the gradual development of his political awareness. Jim Casy (Roger Honeywell), a lapsed preacher who becomes a union leader, is also fully developed.

Steinbeck ends his novel in shock. Gordon doesn’t dare as much and goes for a sentimental Broadway reprise. But Kelly Kaduce, who sings daughter Rosasharn’s attempt to catch a final, fleeting glimmer of hope, brings a tear to the eye anyway.

“Grapes of Wrath” is not a step forward in opera. But Gordon and Korie, through sheer conviction, and Minnesota Opera, through a brilliant production and cast, have found the timeless and timely essence of Steinbeck’s epic. A co-commission with the Utah Symphony and Orchestra and a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and Pittsburgh Opera, the work will have a future. I hope the companies will be strong enough not to cut it but to let it grow.