The Grapes of Wrath

Composed by Ricky Ian Gordon
Libretto by Michael Korie
Based on the novel by John Steinbeck

Premiere: Minnesota Opera, 2007
Utah Opera and Symphony, 2007
Pittsburgh Opera, 2008
Conducted by Grant Gershon
Directed by Eric Simonson
Choreographed by Doug Varone
Scenic Design by Allen Moyer
Costume Design by Karin Kopischke
Lighting design by Robert Wierzel
Projection Design by Wendall Harrington
With Brian Leerhuber, Deanne Meek,
Kelly Kaduce, Roger Honeywell,
Peter Halverson, Robert Orth,
Rosalind Elias, Jesse Blumberg
Andrew Wilkowske, Kelly Markgraf

Opera Theatre of St. Louis, 2017
Premiere of a New Performing Version

Conducted by Christoper Allen
Directed by James Robinson
Starring Tobias Greenhalgh,
Katharine Goeldner, Robert Orth

In Concert: Carnegie Hall, 2010
The Collegiate Chorale
American Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Ted Sperling
With Jane Fonda as narrator,
Nathan Gunn, Victoria Clark,
Christine Ebersole, Elizabeth Futral,
Sean Panikkar, Peter Halverson,
Stephen Powell, Rochelle Nelson,
Don McComb, Matthew Worth,
Andrew Wilkowske, Stephen Pasquale,
Madelyn Gunn, Alex Schwartz



“The great American opera? The Grapes of Wrath might be it. Called ‘Verdi on steroids,’ at the premiere that assessment was wondrously born out of Gordon’s amazing and unusual score of monumental dimensions…The Grapes of Wrath is of epic sweep and of a mesmerizing grandeur that makes the audience participants in the Joads’ flight from Oklahoma to California in the depth of the Great Depression. It is the product of a collective of gifted artists… Librettist Michael Korie has stripped down Steinbeck’s 600 pages to a lean and sing-able text in verse that only occasionally rhymes and retains the speech patterns of the Okies. The score–without recitative–is song based and many scenes flow easily into the next. Despite the darkness and overt tragedy of their story, Gordon and Korie lower the curtain with hope… their story is not told; it is lived out with compelling immediacy before the eyes of the audience, who make the journey with them. Gordon and Korie have created a new–and American–song of the earth.”

–Wes Blomster, Musical America, February 13, 2007

“What a show! Opera Theatre of St. Louis has opened The Grapes of Wrath, a work by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie. I have never in my life been more emotionally moved by an opera than by this glorious production.  The Opera Theatre of St. Louis commissioned this newly “streamlined” version. It’s in two-acts, has a cast of forty and runs nearly three hours, so the original three-act, four-hour work must have been epic indeed. Be that as it may this current version is a work of remarkable beauty and power.  Michael Korie’s libretto is natural and colloquial and very true to the time and place. It’s also true to Steinbeck’s subtle but pervasive Old Testament flavor, which comes clearly through in names, phrases, images and themes.”

–Steve Callahan, BroadwayWorld, May 31, 2017

The Grapes of Wrath has teeth…Ricky Ian Gordon, working in tandem with his librettist, Michael Korie, has found ways to leave its rage intact, even as he gives lyric voice to the suffering Joad clan. The opera achieves its impact because it does not skimp on detail and preserves the hugeness of Steinbeck’s canvas. Brecht wanted to use opera as a kind of Trojan horse, to enter the palaces of upper classes and prick their conscience. Gordon, Korie, and the Minnesota Opera seem to have had a similar purpose in mind. ”

–Alex Ross, The New Yorker, March 5, 2007

“It’s rewarding to see the book’s earthy, oppressive storyline lent new life in this Minnesota Opera world premiere, which adheres closely to Steinbeck’s aesthetic and morality while extracting waves of beauty and transcendence along the way. The opera begins with a show of strength from composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie that is carried through the night: cast and chorus sing in starkly elemental terms of the final rain to fall upon the Oklahoma plains, followed by crushing drought. Gordon’s simple melody unfolds beneath Korie’s plain-spoken lyrics, describing the landscape that propels all the action to follow, until a final haunting description of the sere, blasted world of the Dust Bowl… Korie’s lyrics are almost perfectly matched to Gordon’s score. As the music ranges from high to low, Korie writes passages of piercing beauty, then follows with rhyming couplets that both ably tell the story and evoke the poetry of the characters’ tortured lives. He uses blunt, forceful words that elevate the work’s emotionalism by mixing fatalism with optimism until the opera begins to sing in the range of the universal… Perhaps the most evocative sequences of the evening arrives at the end of the second act, when Noah drowns himself. Korie writes a heartbreaking lyric; dry eyes are in short supply… One is tempted to take issue with the show’s length, at a fraction under four hours, but looking back, it’s extremely difficult to identify any passage as superfluous, any scene as extraneous. Gordon and Korie have produced a bit of a conundrum: a very long show about suffering and endurance that leaves the viewer enlivened. The intelligence and compassion of their work, combined with the evident vitality and belief of the cast in this opera’s merit, supply high emotion with depth and compassion. This is not a happy story, but its telling is nothing short of incandescent.”

–Quinton Skinner, Variety, February 16, 2007

The Grapes of Wrath represents a near-perfect match-up of composer, librettist, and source material.  Gordon is mercifully unafraid to show his gift for melody. Grapes gives most of the main characters distinctive numbers, and recapitulates them a lot so you remember them. Korie also does a virtuosic job of transforming a long and discursive book into an opera that manages to contain a lot of the flavor of the original without feeling like merely a recitation of its main plot points, in language that is very much his own.  The Opera Theater of St. Louis has made something of a specialty of having composers revisit works that had initial big successes but subsequently languished. It’s a valuable function, and I hope this shortened Grapes has a longer active life.”

–Anne Midgette, The Washington Post, June 19, 2017

“Composer Ricky Ian Gordon’s fluent, powerful setting of a great American novel, The Grapes of Wrath, has drawn critical raves and silenced many of the naysayers who bemoan the lack of another great American opera of the stature of Porgy and Bess.  Librettist Michael Korie took on the Dust Bowl novel at full worth, bypassing the upbeat philosophy that ends the famlus John Form film version in favor of the stark tragedy of the Steinbeck original. This Grapes of Wrath suggests a staying power. Partly it is the humility, the willingness of composer and librettist to let Steinbeck’s overpowering textual lyricism rest undisturbed. Maybe, this time, that creaky old institution known as opera really has turned a corner.”

–Alan Rich,, September 8, 2008

“This is a great American opera to stand alongside earlier evocations of specifically American periods and subjects by George Gershwin, Carlisle Floyd, Robert Ward, John Adams and others.”

–John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, June 20, 2017

“Gordon and Korie have found the timeless and timely essence of Steinbeck’s epic. The Grapes of Wrath, with a strong, literate libretto by Michael Korie, is a success. It works not because it is true to Steinbeck’s style but because it honors his spirit… The political undercurrent of Steinbeck’s novel is not neglected. The Joad family’s journey to California is a tragedy because these people don’t understand the power of those who abuse them. Verdi seems Gordon’s and Korie’s model for showing the individual struggling against the system. Gordon and Korie are hope-seekers. Tragedy overcomes the Joad clan, but Gordon has a limitless reserve of song for them…The audience happily hummed the opera’s hummable tunes in the lobby during intermissions. As far as I was concerned, the nearly four-hour opera was too short. I would have gladly returned for more.”

–Mark Swed, The Los Angeles Times, February 17, 2007

“Michael Korie’s libretto is sustained free verse, a treatment of the American vernacular, as sensitive and authentic as I’ve ever heard outside my native American South. Ricky Gordon’s music is an Ozark stream in the springtime, full of energy, muddy here, turbulent there, calm and sweet in crystalline pools that refresh the soul, but dangerous and deadly on the loose.  Fitted with virtuosity to the words of Steinbeck and his characters he created, and in a partnership with their often-balletic movement, the music takes on the shudders of melancholy and dread. It is synchronous, affectingly lyrical and, in the rich context of relationships with Thomson and Copland, an exultation of an indigenous and thoroughly American art. Through the course of the evening, it spills from stage and pit and attaches itself to a listener’s spirit. It is revealed to be, in the end, affectingly noble.  Nowadays, for operas, and really for any legitimate work of Art with a capital A, the industry of those who create it can no longer be a form simply to entertain us, and make us laugh, or cry, and to produce tunes one can whistle and hum while strolling into the darkness.   In the frisson of such magnificence as The Grapes of Wrath, it is sad to say, gentle readers, that it appears in 2017 we in the same rutted, misbegotten track, and only hard work and risk and sacrifice can save us.  But we cannot forget the power and the majesty of art as a sustaining force and as a source of hope and optimism. The Grapes of Wrath, on the page and as music in the air, is a harbinger of possibilities such as those, and as art so often does, revelations strike forcefully and come from sources we can only imagine.”

–Robert W. Duffy, St. Louis Magazine, June 1, 2017

“Distills the story to all the big moments strung skillfully together with well-defined character relationships and spare, meaningful dialogue. Thrilling choral moments lend an epic, almost cinematic sweep to the piece, elevating and ennobling the human suffering of the humble characters.”

–James Sohre, Opera Today, June 27, 2017


Further Reading

A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor: Interviews and Excerpts

The New Yorker: “Agit-Opera”