If you had boarded a particular plane headed to California almost 10 years ago, you might have sat beside Ricky Ian Gordon. And, if curious, you might have looked at the man beside you. You would have seen him reading, turning each page quickly, with a sharp snap, his eyes devouring the sentences without stopping to rest. And if you had craned your neck to read the title, you’d have seen it was The Grapes of Wrath.
For so many, the book has simply been a homework chore for high school literature classes. But it was a revelation for Gordon. Like the Joad family the book describes, he journeyed west and soaked in the themes of grief and compassion. Having lost his partner to illness just two years before, Gordon felt the anguish personally. He knew he had to take the job.
“The job” for Gordon (A’80) came from the Minnesota and Utah operas, which were co-producing an operatic version of The Grapes of Wrath. As the composer, Gordon was to translate into music, for the first time, the feelings and impact of the canonical piece of American literature. “My thought when I was done reading it was, ‘How can I possibly call myself a composer if I say no.’”
The staging didn’t happen overnight. It took two years for the Minnesota Opera artistic director to obtain the rights from the Steinbeck estate, another three years for Gordon to compose the music, four more years before at last the opera debuted in St. Paul.
Yet Gordon felt he could not write quickly enough. He and his directors had agreed that he wouldn’t begin composing until librettist Michael Korie had finished the words. Gordon started as soon as Korie showed him act one.
“It so got the tone of the book. It so stirred and upset and moved me that I had to begin right away. In a way, I couldn’t stop it. For the whole time that I was writing it … I hated to go anywhere.
I just wanted to be here.”
Finally, opening night: “I was sweating and shaking. The opera started and …there was such a roar after everything. …When Michael and I went out to take our bow, we were practically crying.”
What had begun for Gordon on a plane ride to California became a critically acclaimed success, earning praise from many publications, including The New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times. The opera had a week of packed performances in St. Paul earlier this year, then traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah, for more well-received performances. It currently is touring across the country, which includes a November 2008 stop in Pittsburgh.
Now, Gordon finds himself booked up with projects for the next 10 years. So much time has passed and so many things have changed since he began work on The Grapes of Wrath opera that when he thinks back to that trip to California, he can barely remember anything about it. “The only important thing about that trip is that I read this book.”