Carnegie Mellon alum turns novel into opera

When enthusiastic former Carnegie Mellon student Ricky Ian Gordon came to speak here two weeks ago, he described his fear when commissioned to compose an opera based on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

“I thought I was going to melt in my chair,” Gordon explained as he reminisced about receiving the commission from the Minnesota Opera in 1998. Gordon joked that The Grapes of Wrath is really one of those epic books that is so famous, most people think they’ve read it, but actually haven’t. Once Gordon read the book, though, he produced a piece of operatic history with the precise librettist Michael Korie. The opera premiered in 2007 to critical acclaim in Minnesota and then moved to cities such as Los Angeles. Now, The Grapes of Wrath has finally come to Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center through Nov. 23.

Pittsburgh’s production of Gordon’s opera highlights his composing virtuosity with smooth accuracy and desolate beauty. The show opens with a well-constructed patch of corn in center stage and projected images of the sky and clouds as the over 60-person cast and chorus sing about the creation of the infamous Dust Bowl in the 1930s. This rather minimalist and barren set design, along with the stretching sky across the back wall of the stage, provides the audience with Steinbeck’s vision of wide-open space and emptiness as the Okies attempt to make their way to California.

Gordon’s talented composing also highlights this vastness of space with his constant use of open chords, including fifths and octaves. Following in Aaron Copland’s footsteps, Gordon captures the audience with the melody of his main theme, “The Last Time There Was Rain.” The pit is just as prominent as the singers in the show and it includes a soulful harmonica that adds a very effective country feel to the production. If you are coming to the opera hoping for some nice tunes to be able to sing to yourself on the bus ride back, however, this may not be the show for you. Steinbeck’s novel is about moving on in life and driving through the expansive West. By composing music that is harmonically beautiful but does not often stop long enough or repeat often enough to produce a long, recognizable melody, Gordon identifies Steinbeck’s sentiment.

A highlight of the show is Danielle Pastin as Rosasharn, the young lover who is pregnant on the trek to California. Pastin often ends her phrases with beautiful tapers that make it very difficult to identify where her voice ends and silence begins. The principal singers do a terrific job of acting their parts while singing. Craig Verm is excellent as Joad with a projecting voice that never felt forced and a very broad vocal range. Complementing Joad is the struggling but persevering Ma Joad, who sings and acts with sincerity and a genuine Oklahoma accent. With a composer with many musicals, The Grapes of Wrath could turn into a modern day musical with the wrong singers. The Pittsburgh Opera proves its authenticity as one of the finest opera companies in the country, however, with the phenomenal singer actors they employ.

Many adaptations of Steinbeck’s novel leave out the intermediary and poetic chapters, but Gordon and Korie thrive in these chapters. Before the Joads leave their home for California, Ma Joad sings a beautiful aria about what is “us.” “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?” Ma sings. The more the Joads lose, the more important it is to Joad and Ma to remember what “us” is and how to rely on family. The development of this theme makes the opera a bit too long, perhaps, but it is worth it as the epic story is told the way Steinbeck meant it to be.

The Grapes of Wrath Pittsburgh Opera production is a wonderful combination of talented singers, an effective set, and great musical composition. The expressive acting and voice of this cast visually demonstrate the tragedy and human struggle that are Steinbeck’s novel. Gordon may have been anxious about the production of his opera, but it is clear now that he has composed a resonating show that sticks with the audience long after its conclusion.