The Grapes of Wrath tells the American story through operatic performance
While historically a European art form, opera has expanded over the years to include works by composers and librettists from around the globe. These operas explore a broader range of human experiences, including American stories ranging from Civil Rights to baseball to life in Appalachia, often sung in English.
In The Grapes of Wrath opera, composed by Ricky Ian Gordon with a libretto by Michael Korie, John Steinbeck’s Great American Novel is turned into the Great American Opera.
In the midst of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the story follows the Joad family on their quest for survival, traveling from drought-ridden Oklahoma to the farms of California. Along with hordes of other migrant workers, the Joads struggle to find work and living wages, constantly facing starvation and injustice.
Korie said the novel explores themes of corporate indifference and the failure of the American dream.
“When people see the opera, they’re bowled over how true it is, even though it took place 90 years ago,” he said. “You realize these themes are cyclical in America. Inequities you believe to be resolved turn out not to be.”
Gordon said the novel is significant, because its themes resonate worldwide, even though it is an American story.
“The story is about people who have very little who are asked to give it up by the people who have a lot. Those who have nothing give their bodies and their kindness and generosity, while those who exploit them live off of their sacrifices,” he said. “The story is current, universal and biblical.”
Korie said The Grapes of Wrath opera offers a compelling perspective on the work, because it is experienced in one sitting.
“It’s an accrual of incidents that are unbroken and supported by constant music, so it grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go,” he said. “When you read a novel you can say, ‘This is too much, I need a rest, I’ll come back to it.’ With the opera, you can’t come in and out of it, you’re swept up in the whirlwind.”
This is not the first adaptation of the novel, which also includes a film in 1940 and a play in 1990. But Korie said the opera is unique in that it can provide more context to the story. He said the novel includes documentary-like background chapters, which provide insight into the larger plight of the farmers outside of the characters. While these chapters are largely omitted from other interpretations, Korie said the opera is able to convey these chapters through use of the chorus, reminiscent of ancient Greek choruses, and inserting the primary characters.
The prologue of the opera, based on the first chapter of the book which provides background information on the drought and the Dust Bowl, is presented by the principal characters mingled in among the chorus. Another example dramatizes the middle Joad brother, Al, buying a lemon of a used truck, reinvented from Steinbeck’s background chapter on how car lot dealers took advantage of desperate migrants.
“It’s a more complete Grapes of Wrath than the play or the film,” he said.
Novel, opera or otherwise, Gordon said one of the glories and tragedies of The Grapes of Wrath is its utter and extreme resonance at this moment in time.
“People never change. There are always kind and compassionate people and always exploitative people.” He said. “It’s the story of mankind.”