March 30 2011 12:00 AM

MSU Opera Theatre takes on Ricky Ian Gordon’s fierce ‘Grapes of Wrath’



Sing a song of hope, love and family.

Is it the great American song yet?

Try a song of unemployment and foreclosures, union busting and immigrant bashing, alcohol and suicide. Need more? Sing of vigilantes with torches, reformers branded as communists, and bankers golfing while depositors lose their shirts.

Now you have more than the great American song — you have the great American opera.

This weekend, the Michigan State University Opera Theater will be only the fifth company in the country to mount Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” a four-hour epic — as much a Broadwaystyle musical and a sweeping symphonic poem as an opera — that has already been dubbed “the great American opera” by a broad swath of national critics.

Gordon’s old friend and collaborator, Melanie Helton, will direct. They’ve been rehearsing the massive production for months, including a week spent earlier this year with Gordon, who lives in New York.

“It’s going to surprise some people how far these kids go,” Gordon said. “It’s a dense and difficult piece and it’s really brave they’re doing it.”

The same can be said of Gordon, who hadn’t even read the novel when he was asked by the Minnesota Opera and the Utah Opera to write it for a 2007 premiere.

“I lied at our first meeting,” he said.

He read it and was “shattered.”

With a carte blanche commission in his pocket, Gordon resolved to paint a huge, multi-layered canvas, from the intimate woes of the Joads to the broader winds of social and economic collapse.

“I’d rather not do anything, ever,” he said, without a hint of sarcasm. “The thing I do with my life is absolutely the scariest thing for me — creating something out of nothing, feeling confident I have it inside of me.”

But he couldn’t let the cup pass.

“I’ve always wanted a big life, a big destiny,” he said.

Gordon is unique in his ability to fuse musical theater with classical music. He feels and thinks in terms of songs, and decided right away that song would be his window on Steinbeck’s epic vision.

“This story is the quintessential American novel, and the quintessential American form is song,” Gordon said.

All Steinbeck’s characters, from restless searcher Tom Joad to romantics Rosasharn and Connie to fallen Reverend Casy, had songs to sing — or so it seemed to audiences, once Korie and Gordon were through with them.

“I decided to wrap my arms around it like a big four-hour-long musical, from one melody to another, huge set-pieces,” he said.

Helton joins many top critics, including the New Yorker’s Alex Ross, in marveling at Gordon’s achievement.

When Gordon came to MSU to work with Helton’s students in February, she nudged her old friend.

“Ricky, it’s a masterpiece,” she told him. “You’re Puccini.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, Helton and Gordon were part of the vibrant New York music and theater scene.

“I was young, learned music fast and like to hang out at his apartment,” Helton said. “It’s like my little piece of music history, that he has considered me a muse over the years.”

No American composer, including Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, ever managed to write “the great American opera.” Even Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” (one of Gordon’s inspirations for “Grapes”) is freighted with racial baggage and musical limitations.

Helton worked with Leonard Bernstein and performed in the premiere of his only full-length opera, “A Quiet Place.”

“Even as we were working on it, we knew it wasn’t right,” she recalled. “There was something that was very dated about it. With ‘Grapes,’ the source material is so universal. I was struck by how contemporary.”

As soon as Gordon and Korie began to work, they dropped into a time vortex. The Dust Bowl disaster that scoured entire farms and towns off the prairies of Oklahoma in the 1930s swept right along with the news crawl on CNN.

Inspired by Korie’s words — a mix of high poetry, kerosene-soaked slang and satire out of Juvenal — Gordon sailed through Steinbeck’s multi-layered novel, the zeitgeist filling his sails.

He found himself writing the climactic scene, in which a welcome rain swells into a catastrophic flood, just as Hurricane Katrina hit.

When Steinbeck’s Okies wheeze down Route 66 in their jalopies to the imagined paradise of California, locals complain about “shit-heel hicks” that “clog up the highway.”

“Retards got more common sense, Government should build a fence,” they heckle.

“We took that straight from the news,” Gordon said.

A foreclosure scene follows the links in an inhuman chain, from the man with a bulldozer to the local bank manager to a U.S. senator to the bank president in Chicago.

“It’s not my fault,” each singer intones, mechanically.

When the Joads buy a car for their trip to California, a knot of predatory used car salesmen ooze a finger-snapping, smarmy vamp.

A lot of composers would have skipped the used car scene to get on with the story, but Gordon and Korie use it to nail a funny and tragic sideshow of American life, even mimicking Steinbeck’s writing style.

“Steinbeck uses more fragmented, staccato prose there, and Rick and Michael Korie captured that,” Helton said.

The dealers’ patter betrays their contempt for the Okies: “Rolling junk heaps! Trash on wheels! Hicks buy garbage! I close deals!” “Michael is a genius,” Helton said. “He knows how to rhyme without being trite.”

Gordon said Korie’s terse, pithy words gave him the “heat” to write the staggering amount of music the opera needed.

“There were so many places where I could enter through his words,” he said.

Gordon’s music for “The Grapes of Wrath” draws from a myriad of sources, from folk classics to hoedown to commercial jingles to big-sky, melancholy Americana in the mold of Copland.

“It sounds much easier than it actually is, because he’s done such a good job of setting the speech,” Helton said. “But rhythmically, there’s some hard stuff.”

Gordon’s MSU visit jump-started a long and arduous cycle of rehearsals.

“The kids were in love,” Helton said.

“He was remarkably generous with his time. They got to hang out with him.”

Gordon was blunt about the experience. “I told them the piece was too important, and you have to work harder,” he said. “I won’t say I was hard on them, but I was tough with them.”

Gordon could also tell them crucial things that weren’t on the score. Late in the opera, after the Joads have finally found work in California, Pa Joad asks for a second helping of food, and Ma refuses. The family has worked all day, but the wages are too meager for more food.

During rehearsal, Gordon leaned over and told Helton, “At this point, Pa dies. His body continues to work, but his soul is dead.”

It was a key insight for both director and singer.

Gordon can’t come to this weekend’s performance because three of his operas are being readied for performance next week. One of them is a world premiere for the Virginia Opera. “Rappahannock County” follows the Civil War through the lives of people living in one small town and will feature MSU opera grad Matthew Tuell. Gordon has also reteamed with Korie, this time for an opera version of director Vittorio de Sica’s film “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” about Jews in 1930s Italy Despite the kick in the butt he administered last month, he doesn’t sound worried about entrusting his magnum opus to MSU’s student singers and musicians.

“What she has done at that school is miraculous,” Gordon said. “Melanie is really brave.”

Ricky Ian Gordon’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

Michigan State University Opera Theatre 8 p.m. Friday, April 1 and Saturday, April 2; 3 p.m. Sunday, April 3 MSU Concert Auditorium $20 adults; $18 seniors; $10 students (800) WHARTON