St. Louisans can experience a musical makeover of the classic Depression-era tale of a poor Oklahoma family when Opera Theatre of St. Louis debuts a new rendition of “The Grapes of Wrath” on Saturday.
Drought and desperation drive the Joad family of tenant farmers off the plains to California for the promise of a better life. It’s a story of good intentions and bad outcomes that resonates today, said Katharine Goeldner, who sings the role of Ma Joad.
“All they were trying to do was feed their families,” Goeldner said.
‘We haven’t learned anything’
Many will remember John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel from high-school English class. The Joads flee the Dust Bowl after losing their livelihood, imagining a life of plenty made possible by working in California's orchards.
But trouble and tragedy follow the family’s bulging truck as it sputters into the land of sunshine. The Joads feel unwelcome, unable to find the work they seek.
At one point, they finally make a little money by crossing a picket line to pick fruit. But a system that does little to help the poor keeps them from any sort of stability. To Goeldner, it seems not much has changed since the 1930s.
“How Americans treated fellow Americans and threw them off the land tore down their houses and the same thing is going on today with the Mexican immigrants with Middle Eastern immigrants,” Goeldner said. “It's like we haven't learned anything.”
Another enduring situation, Goeldner said, is Ma Joad’s take on where to turn in times of need: In the words of Steinbeck, "go to poor people. They're the only ones that'll help — the only ones."
‘Deeply raw, human moment’
But the downtrodden don’t always help each other, according to Deanna Breiwick, who sings the role of the Joad’s pregnant daughter, Rosasharn.
Breiwick said the story also illustrates the damage desperate people can inflict upon each other as they compete for a piece of the American Dream.
“They all have the same needs the same wants; they're all looking for work and home,” Breiwick said. “And yet they take on this ‘us and them’ mentality and they turn on each other.”
But those familiar with the Steinbeck classic know Rosasharn turns toward, not away, from another’s need, just after the heartache of losing her husband and having a stillborn baby.
“In the last scene, she has this very selfless moment that she's sort of called upon to do,” Breiwick said.
Many already know the details of that pivotal scene, in which a grieving Rosasharn offers her breast to a starving stranger.
“It's a very beautiful, sacrificial, deeply raw, human moment,” Brewick said.
‘Is this going to work?’
In 2007, when Ricky Ian Gordon wrote the score to the first Grapes of Wrath opera, many Americans were enjoying a period of prosperity.
“At the time, [librettist] Michael Korie and I were invited to create an epic. We were given no budgetary constraints,” Gordon said. “So we wrote this huge, three-act epic opera with like many, many choruses and this huge orchestra.”
In 2008, of course, the country plunged into recession. Companies couldn't afford to stage the lavish three-and-a-half-hour presentation with 67 characters.
“Too big, too expensive,” Gordon said.
Opera Theatre music director James Robinson told Gordon to cut it down, and they’d debut it in St. Louis. Now it’s an hour shorter with a third fewer people, some singing multiple roles.
“It took a certain amount of courage," Gordon said, "because it was like, ‘Is this going to work or is it going to feel like something that was hacked up?’”
Performer Robert Orth, who sang Uncle John in both the original opera and this new one, believes the process succeeded by revealing the essence of a great story.
“It's still a grand opera," Orth said. "It's just more compact."
Some alterations took place during rehearsals.
“I loved having the composer right there and cutting things out and putting other things in,” Orth said. "It was so fascinating."
In both iterations, he said, the music itself is a study in different styles from the American musical tradition.
“It's got Aaron Copland — that openness of the prairie,” Orth said. “And it's got some of the kind of jazz-tinged stuff and so much of it … I would daresay, sounds familiar in a sense.”
‘Boxes of Kleenex’
The Symphony’s Christopher Allen will conduct “The Grapes of Wrath," Opera Theatre’s second presentation of the 2017 season. It runs through June 25.
“Grapes” is a perfect choice for novices, according to Katharine Goeldner. It’s sung in English, includes some dialogue and is set in a period through which many of this generation's parents or grandparents.
Goeldner was touched by the way the personation honors the characters’ dignity.
“It’s not disrespectful of poor, uneducated people at all,” Goeldner said. “It says, ‘These are human beings with real lives and real souls and real brains.’”
Goeldner thinks audiences will talk about the poignant and truly American story all the way home.
“How many boxes of Kleenex they went through, how many times they cried and how beautiful it was,” she said.
If you go:
'The Grapes of Wrath,' presented by Opera Theatre of St. Louis
Loretto-Hilton Center for Performing Arts, Webster University campus, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves
Saturday, May 27-Sunday, June 25
Tickets are $25 to $129
Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL