‘Grapes of Wrath’ opera premieres at NU
Ricky Ian Gordon
‘The Grapes of Wrath’
7:30 p.m. Feb. 22, Feb. 28 and March 2; 2 p.m. Feb. 24
Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston.
$18; $8 for students
(847) 467-4000; www.pickstaiger.org.
Updated: February 20, 2013 12:30PM
John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath has been made into a full-scale opera by one of America’s most successful living songwriters, Ricky Ian Gordon.
Staged in Minneapolis in 2007, the opera will receive its Chicago-area premiere at Northwestern University over the next two weekends.
“There came a moment when I knew I wanted to be an opera composer,” said Gordon, whose songs have been performed by such operatic and Broadway luminaries as Renee Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, Nathan Gunn, Kelli O’Hara and Audra MacDonald.
“So I sent 16 of my songs out to a number of opera companies,” he continued. “Minnesota Opera got back to me and said they wanted to do an opera based on Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ in conjunction with Utah Opera.
“Let me re-read the book,” he replied, but in fact, he had never read it. Facing a cross-country flight to Los Angeles, he bought a copy and started reading it on the plane. “It was unbelievably gripping,” he said during a phone interview from his home on New York City’s Upper West Side. He admitted he initially found the story “a scary thing.”
The opera took four years to write. “I’m a Jewish boy from Long Island,” he said. “What did I know about the Dust Bowl?”
So in addition to reading Steinbeck’s book, he traveled the country and talked to people, some of the whom lived through the Dust Bowl. He also read the award-winning non-fiction book The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. “Ken Burns PBS series ‘The Dust Bowl’ used material from that book,” Gordon said.
Some Chicagoans might remember Frank Galati’s adaptation of “Grapes of Wrath” which originated in 1988 with Steppenwolf Theatre and went to Broadway in 1990, winning the 1990 Tony Award for Best Play.
“My opera is quite different from Galati’s intimate play,” Gordon said. “In the book, Steinbeck alternates between the story of the Joads, with what was going on in the government at that time. I use the chorus for the part about what was happening in the government.”
Playing Uncle John in the original cast of “Grapes of Wrath” was baritone Robert Orth, a role he reprised in Utah and Pittsburg and will portray again at Northwestern. In addition to singing the standard operatic repertoire, Orth has made a career of performing in new American operas such as portraying Frank Lloyd Wright in “Shining Brow” and the title role in “Nixon in China” with Chicago Opera Theatre.
“I’m an American,” said Orth, speaking from his home in Libertyville. “I’m thrilled to do American operas.”
As a child Orth lived in Chicago, Montana and Texas, where he experienced dust storms. “I remember the clouds, the howling winds all the time,” he said of that time. “We hung wet rags around the bed of my baby brother, but when the storm was over there was red dust everywhere.”
In preparation for the opera, he and the entire Northwestern cast watched the Ken Burns series.
Director of Opera at NU Michael Ehrman also watched the Burns pieces. “I have wanted to do ‘Grapes of Wrath’ since I came to Northwestern,” he declared, “but I was waiting for the right voices, and now I have them.”
He has plenty. The cast numbers 67, including 11 local children. Erhman believes that might be the largest cast ever assembled at Cahn for a Northwestern opera.
Ehrman’s association with the composer goes back to the early 1980s when they were both beginning their careers in Manhattan. “I remember when Ricky would compose a new song, he’d invite us all over to his apartment and play it for us,” he said.
For Ehrman, the presence of Robert Orth from the original cast is a terrific plus. Gordon’s praise for the baritone who plays Uncle John is even more effusive. For Ehrman, the presence of Robert Orth from the original cast is a terrific plus. Gordon’s praise for the baritone who plays Uncle John is even more effusive. “Don’t let Orth tell you he has a small part,” Gordon insisted. “Uncle John has a big moment at the end.”
Orth came to Evanston to work with the cast several weeks back. “Bob says one word and the students listen,” Gordon continued. “He is a delightful person. If you are a American opera composer, you have to write a role for Robert Orth.”