MSU Opera to perform "Grapes of Wrath"

EAST LANSING, MI – The MSU Opera Theater and Symphony are presenting Ricky Ian Gordon's opera, "The Grapes of Wrath," based on the novel by John Steinbeck. WKAR's Melissa Ingells recently spoke with Melanie Helton, associate professor of voice and director of MSU Opera Theater, about the work. Helton says the composers tried to remain true to spirit of the novel.

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MELANIE HELTON: What's interesting is that Michael Korie and Ricky Ian Gordon, the librettist and the composer, structured the opera to really go along with the book. Which is that the book has chapters that are more about social issues, where they'll talk about the guys who are selling used cars to go out to California. They'll talk about the families and how the tractors, you know, pushed them off the land. They'll talk about things that are very sociological in opposition to chapters that are about the Joad family, which is sort of the microcosm of everything that's happening.

And the opera is structured very much like that as well, in that we have, within the Joad story, there are definitely sections, for instance there's a really fun little sort of bebop section with the used car salesmen going, like, (sings) "Good cars, good used cars," and it's really with finger-snapping and everything. So it's a really jaunty little American tune.

MELISSA INGELLS: There's so much in the opera, as I was reading the synopsis, that Ricky Ian Gordon wrote it in '07 which was maybe before we were hearing as much about unemployment and foreclosure and labor issues and etc. I mean, is it sobering for you or for the kids to be working on this piece now when lot of the same issues are in the news?

HELTON: I think it's unbelievably sobering. And I'm so proud of the students because almost all of them have read the book in detail. In fact sometimes they'll say to me I'll have forgotten something because I read it last summer and they'll say, "Oh no, you know that part in the book when this happens." And I'm just overwhelmed by the amount of attention they've put onto it and the amount of thought they've put into it. It is overwhelming.

I mean, there's a section at the beginning when the Okies are on Route 66 and they stop for gas. And there's a group of what we call the Anti-Okies who basically say, you know, why can't they drive between the white lines? Why are they going 35? You know, one guy tried to sell me his kid's doll for a gallon of gas.

All of those kinds of things. And the fact of displacement. And I think primarily because you know, our college kids come from primarily a middle-class background.

I think families across Michigan are struggling, but they are now struggling more than in any time in our history since the Great Depression. And I think these kids are feeling it with their own families. There's several of them who've talked about it in detail. You know, fathers who've lost jobs or people who've had to change their jobs or have been downsized tremendously.

And I think it's very sobering and yet hopefully uplifting. Because ultimately the strength is in the family and the strength is in the relationships and how they care for one another. And how, strangely enough, at the very end when Rose of Sharon, when she's feeding the starving man from her own breast, because she's lost her baby but she still has milk to give. And she says, "Take it, Mister, because we're poor people and only poor people help each other."

INGELLS: One of the things that occurs to me about being able to get into this opera from the standpoint of the students who are in it, is that, obviously all operas have librettos. The bulk of them are not in English as a first language. And yet they're reading, not only a libretto, i.e., Steinbeck's book, but also one of the seminal books of the twentieth century. Does that bring a different layer to it, do you think?

HELTON: I think absolutely. And the amazing thing is, Michael Korie's libretto is just brilliant. He's managed to really encapsulate the beautiful language of the book. I mean, I sort of immersed myself in Steinbeck last summer. I must have read everything, including non-fiction. And I was really stunned at the beauty of the writing, not just the amazing stories but the musicality of the writing.

And what Michael has done is actually create a libretto that rhymes, strangely enough. Which allows the ear to really grab onto it in a strange way. When you anticipate a rhyme, it's almost as though you know what is going to be said before it's said, and I think it helps the listener to really get the text into them.

The text is also set very clearly. Ricky's a genius in terms of setting American text. He is somebody who is so text-driven as a composer. It's all about the text first. And so I think it's a brilliant marriage of that. And it is so reflective of the book. It has those same sort of "ah-ha" moments as the book.

There's a beautiful aria for Ma in the first act when she's leaving her own home. And she goes, "This dead land is us. All this hardship is us." And then she talks about her mother's needlepoint, "a letter from my brother the day before he died, that goes. Everything else has to stay." And so it's really moving.