Q & A: Ricky Ian Gordon Revisits ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

By David Salazar
(Credit: Fay Fox)

Few works of American literature have had quite the impact of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Published in 1939, the seminal Pulitzer Prize-winning novel focuses on a poor family of tenant farmers, the Joads, as they are driven from their homes and forces to face the difficult world of the Great Depression.

The film received an iconic film adaptation by John Ford back in 1940 and the work has inspired a number of artists over the years, particularly musicians the world-over such as Woody Guthrie, Kris Kristofferson, Camel, Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against the Machine, and Bad Religion, among many others.

Among those many others was composer Ricky Ian Gordon who, in 2007, was tasked with creating an opera on the subject. Now the famed composer of such works as “Ellen West,” “The Garden of the Finzi Continis,” and “Intimate Apparel,” “The Grapes of Wrath” was an early venture into opera for Gordon. The work premiered in 2007 in Minnesota and has since seen revivals in Salt Lake City, Pittsbrugh, Carnegie Hall, Michigan State University, and St. Louis. Now it heads back to Carnegie Hall where MasterVoices will present the work on April 17.

OperaWire spoke to Gordon about the genesis of his “Grapes of Wrath” and the impact it had on the rest of his career.

OperaWire:What inspired you to take on this iconic work back in 2007?

Ricky Ian Gordon: I had sent a recording of 16 songs of mine sung by various artists to several opera companies because I wanted to start writing opera. I felt my voice wasn’t being heard in the musical theater and I felt the world of opera would be more hospitable to my style. The first opera company to respond was Houston Grand Opera for whom I wrote my first opera, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” which was written for my partner Jeffrey. He was dying of AIDS and wanted me to learn the Buddhist teachings because he wanted to die as a Buddhist. I wrote that opera so our lives would be inundated with the teachings.

The second company to contact me was Minnesota Opera. The director Eric Simonson had approached them about doing an opera of “The Grapes of Wrath,” after acting in Frank Galati’s Steppenwolf adaptation of the book, and he wanted to direct it. They gave him the recording of my songs and I believe it was Lauren Flanagan singing my setting of Emily Dickinson’s “Will There Really Be a Morning?” that cinched it. Eric thought my language was perfect for the story. Dale Johnson and Floyd Anderson from Minnesota Opera came to New York to meet me and talk about it.

I lied. I had never read the book but I was too embarrassed to say so, so I said I had to REREAD it. But the book’s magnificence wove its way into my bones, and though terrifying, I felt that if I were lucky enough to be offered the opportunity of dramatizing with my music a story so towering and so clearly relevant, more so every year, I had to say yes. It was fate.

OW: John Steinbeck’s work is iconic, but so is his style as a writer. When you approached the composition of this work, did you try to find a way to incorporate Steinbeck’s style in your music or did you stick to your own voice?

RIG: Michael Korie, my librettist and I, decided, for one thing, to try and keep intact Steinbeck’s format for the book, the way every other chapter is the story of the Joads’ exodus out West from their ruined lives in Oklahoma, toward a dream of plenty that unfortunately didn’t exist. The interstitial chapters are Steinbeck’s take on an unjust America (or world) that could allow that to happen to these people. We used our chorus for those chapters, as the voice of Steinbeck.

As far as Steinbeck’s style, versus mine… as a dramatist, you allow a story to come through you, and you imbue it with whatever music you think it needs, whatever is at your fingertips and part of your vocabulary to tell that story. In the case of “The Grapes of Wrath,” because I am a human trash can of music from every conceivable genre, a polymath, if you will, I used a lot of my ideas, three acts worth, three and a half hours worth, and I’m grateful to have been particularly fecund for the job. When I compose, I assume, everything will sound like my music, because I am the one writing it, an amalgamation of all my likes and dislikes, tastes and distastes. My music is mine, no matter its influences.

OW: How would you describe the musical language of “The Grapes of Wrath?”

RIG: It is Americana in places, serial in places, fiercely operatic but also, insistently melodic like a ballad opera, because I felt, it is the people’s book, the people’s story, the world’s favorite book, and the language of the music and the words had to be accessible and highly relatable, as it seemed criminal, the notion of driving an audience away with unnecessary opaqueness, when certainly Steinbeck never did. It was with Grapes that I started calling my works, “operacals.”

OW: What was the greatest challenge you encountered in composing this work and how did you overcome that challenge?

RIG: Facing this sheer bulwark of such a story. Facing down my own terrors and insecurities which are numerous. How is it possible this Jewish kid from Long Island was pegged to tell this story? I used as a model, Alban Berg, in the way he breaks everything in “Wozzeck,” and “Lulu,” down into smaller forms… relying on accumulation and accrual, that way, I tricked myself into thinking it was a manageable climb rather than perilous and certain for failure. There is a sequence which was very difficult and of which I am particularly proud, which is the entire Hooverville sequence in Act two, (only excerpted in the concert version) because it had about a million theatrical beats and every one of them had to be tight and inexorable, leading to the next beat, moment by moment accumulating tension until it led to Noah’s drowning, which basically, Michael and I made up. The only departure from the source material.

OW: Given the time that has passed and how you have developed as an artist since, what would you say were the essential skills or insights that you learned from composing “The Grapes of Wrath?”

RIG: How to allow my negative voices to live but not shape in any way my aesthetic. How to manage a larger form. How to trust my ability to shape characters and build motifs, and how to create an epic! Nothing will ever be as hard as “The Grapes of Wrath,” again. Well, I say that, but always is, just as hard.

OW: What excites you about seeing the work revived with MasterVoices this year?

RIG: We are revisiting it but also reshaping it in various ways that make it feel fresh. We have mixed racial casting, new narrators, some new orchestrations… and a phenomenal cast, chorus, and orchestra, not to mention Ted Sperling at the podium. We added a scene from the government camp that features the children, Ruthie (played by Ted’s daughter. Ruby!) that I love and freshened up the Square Dance filling out Al’s character more than ever, as a lascivious hound-dogger. There are lots of little changes for this iteration of the concert suite which make it entirely new.

OW: What do you hope that audiences take away from the experience?

RIG: All one can hope for, is that an audience is moved, that that they feel a sense of communion with their fellow human beings, that they feel more empathy and compassion, even propelled into any action toward making the world a lighter, easier, and more loving place, as people displaced having lost everything, migrants looking for work in unwelcoming circumstances, and poor people denigrated for their poverty and forced to swallow wholly unsatisfying reasoning for their situations, in short, greed and corruption, are as prevalent now as when the book was written, if not more so, in fact, probably more so…given the disparity of wealth in this country, and the wealthy’s utter distaste at paying taxes like the rest of us.

…and perhaps, a little grateful to the artists who spent years alone in their room creating this beauty, and the artists on stage channeling it through their own vehicles.


Behind the ScenesInterviews