Get Closer: Travel West with ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

Travel to Cali: A Historical Journey Across Route 66


Travel across Route 66 with The Grapes of Wrath during Opera Theatre’s 2017 season. This uniquely American opera is based on John Steinbeck’s best-selling novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1940 — just one year after being published. The book is still included on most lists of the best English-language novels of the 20th century!


Although The Grapes of Wrath was critically acclaimed, it was also highly controversial immediately after its publication. The book was banned and burned in many cities, as people accused the author of Socialist sympathies. Steinbeck first conceived of his novel while working on a series of newspaper articles about the plight of migrant workers in California. He was disgusted by the shantytowns he visited, and equally appalled by the working conditions of so-called “Okies.” The Grapes of Wrath was meant to be a wake-up call to the rest of the nation.


With its themes of economic uncertainty and shifting political loyalties, this story of one family’s fight to survive still resonates today. Before it was even adapted into an opera, The Grapes of Wrath had already inspired several other musicians. Woody Guthrie wrote a two-part song about the main character, Tom Joad. Bruce Springsteen named his 11th studio album after Tom Joad, and Mumford & Sons wrote a song (“Dust Bowl Dance”) based on the novel.


It’s also the perfect inspiration for an opera! Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie’s The Grapes of Wrath premiered at the Minnesota Opera in 2007. They made the overwhelming task of boiling down Steinbeck’s 400+ page novel into a cohesive piece of dramatic theater seem effortless. Yet that isn’t surprising, given their respective backgrounds.


Composer Ricky Ian Gordon is well-versed in a number of musical genres — ranging from operas to musicals to art song — making him the perfect person to craft an American sound for this story. He even incorporated traditional American instruments like the banjo and washboard! For his part, playwright and librettist Michael Korie is well-known for developing gripping theatrical stories, including the musicals Grey Gardens and Far From Heaven.


Now they are pairing up again to present a newly revised version of The Grapes of Wrath at Opera Theatre, opening May 27, 2017. So what will they be changing? According to Mr. Korie, “I had to take out a lot of Steinbeck in the original because the piece was already too huge. But I missed it because it’s a lot of the political stuff. This time around I took out a lot of the subsidiary characters, and found that…I didn’t need the kind of lyric structure you need in musicals.” Mr. Gordon summed it up even more succinctly, “It really will be…a total reconfiguration.”