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Singing "The Grapes of Wrath"
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Michael Korie, left, and Ricky Ian Gordon are writing an operatic adaptation of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." (MPR photo/Karl Gehrke)
John Steinbeck's classic novel of Depression-era America, "The Grapes of Wrath," has been adapted for the stage and film. Now the Minnesota Opera is in the process of turning the Pulitzer Prize-winning book into a full-scale opera. Recently the composer and librettist for the project were in the Twin Cities for a workshop run-through of the first act. They say they've undertaken a rather daunting task.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Ricky Ian Gordon has written music for the concert hall, theater, film and dance, but he's never faced a challenge like turning "The Grapes of Wrath" into an opera.

"I've never in my life been so sick and frightened," he says. "Who the hell am I to write an opera of John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath?'"

The idea of adapting "The Grapes of Wrath" for the opera stage came from Minnesota Opera artistic director Dale Johnson. He turned to Gordon because his music is inspired by both classical and popular traditions, and has a distinctly American sound. Gordon then brought librettist Michael Korie into the project. He admits he had his doubts too.

"It's a huge novel and a huge amount to encompass in an opera, which has limited time for text. And there is a lot of story," Korie says. "And Ricky said, 'Well, read it!' I had read it in high school, and I read it again and then I was convinced that it would work. And it seemed very musical and doable."

Michael Korie and Ricky Ian Gordon spent a week in Minneapolis at the Minnesota Opera Center, where the opera's resident artists sang through parts of the first act. Until then, Gordon had just been working on the music in his home studio and wasn't sure if what he and Korie had written could be sung on stage.

I am very moved when I write this. And I pray that something is going to come through me that feels right.
- Composer Ricky Ian Gordon

"I play it, I sing it, and then I put it in my computer. A lot of it, it's very intricate, and very contrapuntal and very choral. So I have to do it on the computer in order to hear what I am doing. A lot of times I have to sketch it out and be able to play it back," says Gordon. "So it's been really interesting to hear the voices and see that. And I am feeling that, 'Oh, yes, this is very doable.' You know what I mean? Because sometimes we really wondered if this was even going to work. So it's been really, really useful."

It was also a useful process for the Minnesota Opera resident artists. Mezzosoprano Anna Jablonski sang the role of Ma Joad during the workshop. Many of the operas she sings are a century or two old, and the people who wrote them -- for example, Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte -- are long gone.

"So many times I would just love to ask Da Ponte, 'What do you mean by this?'" she laughs. "And of course it's Italian or whatever, so it's sort of hard to translate. But Michael Korie, it's been great having him here, because it's really fantastic to be able to ask what he means, because there's always things underneath, you know. There's all these subtexts, and trying to kind of figure out your own intentions, it's helpful."

In choosing "The Grapes of Wrath" for an opera production, Minnesota Opera Artistic Director Dale Johnson was attracted to the issues John Steinbeck raised in the novel.

"I am a great believer in opera as both a political and sociological artform," Johnson says.

Johnson says the book's story, of a Depression-era Oklahoma family losing its farm and seeking a better life in California, is still relevant today.

"Those issues aren't going away. I mean just a few weeks ago the Congress passed this bankruptcy bill, which essentially was to get people to take more credit but then come down on them," says Johnson. "It's essentially what was happening to the Joad family and the other Okies, was to get them to take out a lot of credit, and then foreclose on them and their farms."

Johnson says the book's theme of disenfranchisement is also still very relevant.

Librettist Michael Korie and composer Ricky Ian Gordon say they're both humbled to be turning "The Grapes of Wrath" into an opera. Gordon says that despite feeling overwhelmed, he's pleased with what they've written so far.

"I am very moved when I write this," Gordon says. "I often call Michael 50 times, and go 'Oh my God, I can't believe how beautiful this passage is here. I can't believe these words.' It's really rich working on it. It's really rich and moving. And I pray that something is going to come through me that feels right."

There will be more workshops over the next two years as Gordon and Korie continue to work on "The Grapes of Wrath." The production is scheduled to be staged by the Minnesota Opera in February 2007.

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