Utah Opera to premiere 'The Grapes of Wrath'

It's big challenge for small house to stage new work, officials say

Published: Sunday, June 19 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

Regional opera companies, such as Utah Opera, normally aren't associated with world premieres. Because of the logistics and expense involved in staging a new work, smaller companies don't always have the same physical and financial resources as larger houses.

There are exceptions, of course. A decade ago, Utah Opera commissioned composer David Carlson for an opera commemorating the Beehive State's centennial. His "Dreamkeepers" premiered in the Capitol Theatre in January 1996.

Since then, however, no new opera has seen the light of day locally.

That will change in May 2007 when the Salt Lake company premieres a new opera based on John Steinbeck's epic novel "The Grapes of Wrath." With a libretto by Michael Korie and music by Ricky Ian Gordon, the work is a co-commission with Minnesota Opera. It will receive its first performance in Minnesota in February 2007, before coming to Utah Opera.

"I feel great that we're doing this," said Christopher McBeth, Utah Opera artistic director. "It's challenging, staging a new work, but this is a positive step for the company."

McBeth is an avid champion of new American opera. He developed his love for contemporary music while he was with the Houston Grand Opera, where he worked as an assistant to general director David Gockley before coming to Salt Lake City in 2000. "it's important to infuse the repertoire with new works," McBeth said.

Opera aficionados will get a sneak peek at "The Grapes of Wrath" next weekend when Utah Opera will present excerpts from Gordon's score in conjunction with the Utah Arts Festival.

Singing parts of Act II will be James Rollins, Kristin Hurst-Hyde, Clara Hurtado-Lee, Todd and James Miller, Gary Sorenson and Michael Turnblom. They will be accompanied by pianist Thomas Klassen. "There will be three different excerpts, and it's going to be semistaged," said McBeth.

Korie, Gordon and stage director Eric Simonson will also be present to discuss their work and answer any questions from the audience. The event will run from 4-6 p.m. in the auditorium of the Salt Lake City Main Library. (Festival tickets are not necessary to attend.)

The idea for turning "The Grapes of Wrath" into an opera originated with Dale Johnson, artistic director for the Minnesota Opera. About three years ago he shared his idea with Anne Ewers, Utah Symphony & Opera CEO. She in turn told him that she was thinking along similar lines. "And it snowballed from there," McBeth said.

Johnson and Ewers approached Gordon, who was interested in the project. Gordon suggested Korie as the librettist, and once the Steinbeck estate agreed to release the rights to the book, Korie set about transforming the 600-page novel into a workable opera of less than three hours in length.

As a librettist, Korie has always been drawn to American topics that deal with social issues and injustices. And he has never shied away from tackling controversial subjects. His most famous operatic work to date is "Harvey Milk." A collaboration with composer Stewart Wallace, the opera deals with the country's first openly gay political figure, San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, who was gunned down along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in 1978.

When "Harvey Milk" premiered at Houston Grand Opera a decade ago, critics disparagingly labeled it a "CNN opera," because its subject matter was torn from the headlines. But instead of being offended by the description, Korie wholeheartedly embraced it. "It's important for people to understand that the work they are watching has meaning in their lives," he said. "Otherwise, opera becomes a rarefied experience."

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