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Christopher McBeth

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."

Even though Steinbeck's novel is about one Oklahoma family's struggle to survive the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and their hope that they will find a better life in California, Korie said the story is as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1939. "The story of the Joads is a story about 'us' against a faceless wall. That hasn't changed one bit. It's just as pertinent today as ever."

When he was approached about writing the libretto, Korie was at first daunted by the task. "But it was a great challenge." And as he began working on it, he realized that transforming it into a libretto would be easier than anticipated. "The novel is written rather operatically, "he said. "It has a three-act structure."

Gordon, too, was struck by the immensity of the project. "My first thought was, 'Who the hell am I to set Steinbeck to music?"' But once he began writing, he was caught up in the world Steinbeck created in the novel. "It's a huge project, but it's exciting to work on it. It definitely plumbs the depths of who I am (as a composer)."

From the start, Gordon realized the music needed a distinctive American sound. "The music is flat-out American vernacular. It's a set-piece opera in the style of 'Porgy and Bess,' 'Street Scene' and 'The Consul.' The score has songs, duos, trios and large ensembles. It's definitely my (musical) language and my world, but taken in a whole new direction."

McBeth said that Gordon is the right composer for "The Grapes of Wrath." "Ricky is a champion of contemporary art song. He loves to write for singers. His melodies are just beautiful, and people always comment on how accessible his music is."

Other companies have shown an interest in the opera, McBeth said. "We've discussed it briefly with Tulsa Opera and Opera Pacific, and we're approaching San Francisco Opera and Los Angeles Opera."

McBeth hopes that "The Grapes of Wrath" will spawn more interest locally in new operas. "I think many people want new opera. People see the same things over and over, and some thirst for something new.

"Personally, I would like to see us premiere a new work every five years or so."

If you go

What: "The Grapes of Wrath" (excerpts), Utah Opera

Where: Salt Lake City Main Library Auditorium

When: Saturday, 4 p.m.

How much: Free with $7 Utah Arts Festival admission

E-mail: [email protected]