Newly-Revised Grapes of Wrath to Premiere in Pittsburgh Nov. 15

Classic Arts Features   Newly-Revised Grapes of Wrath to Premiere in Pittsburgh Nov. 15
Pittsburgh Opera will present four performances of this revision of the new opera, based on John Steinbeck's iconic American novel, by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie. Both will be on hand to supervise the production and attend opening night.

The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family as they pursue the American Dream from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to the orchards of California. OBIE-winning composer Gordon (for Orpheus and Euridice) and Tony-nominated librettist Korie (for Grey Gardens) fuse the traditions of opera and Broadway with blues, Appalachian music, and echoes of Copland and Gershwin.

Pittsburgh Opera's production reflects substantial revisions Gordon and Korie have made to the score since the world premiere at Minnesota Opera in January 2007, including a reconfigured first act and expanded choral writing. A live recording, made by Minnesota Opera during the premiere run, was released on August 26, 2008 by PS Classics.

Conductor Richard Buckley (most recently at Pittsburgh Opera for Pagliacci in 2006) takes the podium for a fifth time to lead members of the original Minnesota Opera cast, as well as former Resident Artists of Pittsburgh Opera in major roles: Craig Verm (Tom Joad), Sean Panikkar (Jim Casy), and Jason Karn (Al Joad).

Anna Singer plays Granma. New to Pittsburgh are soprano Danielle Pastin as Rosasharn, Jesse Blumberg as Connie Rivers, Peter Halverson as Pa Joad and Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop in the pivotal role of Ma Joad.

The enormous cast of 19 soloists includes three children and an ensemble of crackerjack bit players who - along with the impressive chorus - portray waitresses, truck drivers, politicians, field hands, and townspeople along the way.

General Director Christopher Hahn recalls the day Gordon came to Pittsburgh to play and sing the opera for him and members of the staff in 2005. "Ricky's presentation of the score was so powerful and persuasive that the bare rehearsal room seemed to come vividly to life. We became one of the original three co-producers of the opera, along with The Minnesota Opera and Utah Symphony & Opera."

Hahn notes that although The Minnesota Opera hosted the premiere, designer Allen Moyer had the Benedum Center's stage in mind when creating the set.

"Pittsburgh Opera has two great responsibilities in this production," notes Hahn. "First of all, this opera has seen significant changes since the first two productions, and we want to give the premiere of the final version an unforgettable performance." Pittsburgh Opera is also the first "union house" to stage the work. "This means that we are setting the performance requirements for all future productions for the number, distribution, and base pay for the singers from leads to choristers. Even when a new opera is wonderful, it may not get many performances if it's too expensive or difficult to produce. So the future success of this important work rests with us."



The Libretto
Once Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie received permission from the Steinbeck Foundation to set the opera, Michael Korie faced the daunting task of creating a libretto from a highly episodic novel whose story of the Joads is interspersed with chapters of searing social and political commentary. Both composer and librettist, working on the opera in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, felt that the themes of the novel remain relevant today.

As Korie wrote about the novel, "It endures because essential truths make it also of our time. And it is universal. It depicts conditions in an American past that continue to resonate in our lives, our nation, and our world. There is no question that The Grapes of Wrath continues to address the issues we are living with today. It endures in the American conscience."

The Score

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Ricky Ian Gordon
photo by Kevin Doyle

From the beginning, Ricky Ian Gordon had Michael Korie's "voice" in mind to partner with his music. Gordon intended the musical language to have a contemporary feel, but also to reflect the time period of the opera. He also wanted to make sure that his music "can be easily grasped and enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their musical training or experience. This is not at all to say that a musically sophisticated audience will not be intrigued by the structures and melodic complexity." Gordon also wanted the opera to have a distinctly American voice.

From his lifelong fascination with American musical theater, he drew inspiration from classics such as Showboat, Porgy & Bess, and Kurt Weill's Street Scene. "The show definitely has a 'classical' sound," he says, "but I wanted the opera to be a crossover piece in the best sense of that word." Gordon continues, "I wanted the opera to be a powerful evocation of Steinbeck's story: a story about great, flat distances, wide open spaces, vast silences filled with doubt, fear, and hope, with pain and loss and ultimately with compassion and human kindness. I intended my music to support those images, sounding like the wide-open spaces of Aaron Copland filtered through me."

Unusual Instruments
Gordon's score calls for some instruments rarely found in the traditional opera pit: alto and tenor saxophones, keyboards, banjo, and guitar. Finding a harmonica player who could play Gordon's demanding part proved challenging for the company. Marc Reisman, formerly with Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, was tapped to play both harmonica and bass harmonica. Kenneth Karsh, adjunct professor of guitar at Duquesne University, plays guitar and banjo for Grapes. Karsh has performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and recorded with Eric Kloss, Bobby McFerrin, Joe Negri, and Bernadette Peters, among many others.

Gordon's score is also thickly layered, particularly with brass instruments. He intended all along for the singers to be amplified. For this production, all of the principal singers will wear body microphones: but will sing with their full operatic voices. Hahn notes, "We struggled with this idea at first because it is a point of pride in the opera world that we do not amplify voices except in very special circumstances. This is truly a fusion of opera and musical theater style, so we felt that - for this opera alone - using microphones is necessary. We do not plan to use microphones in the future for mainstream opera repertoire."

The Grapes of Wrath will enjoy four performances at Pittsburgh's Benedum Center for the Performing Arts-

Saturday, November 15 at 8 PM
Tuesday,November 18 at 7 PM
Friday, November 21 at 8 PM
Sunday, November 23 at 2 PM

Tickets, starting at $16, may be purchased by calling (412) 456-6666 or visitng, or at the Theater Square box office at 665 Penn Avenue.

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