A scene from the opera Grapes of Wrath

Michael Korie and Ricky Ian Gordon develop music for Grapes of Wrath Opera, providing insight into the struggles of today’s migrant workers.

By Suzanne Chessler

Lyricist Michael Korie believes that every new work of art should speak to the issues of the day but not in an obvious way.

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon agrees.

Together, they worked that goal into the development of an opera, The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, carried into John Ford’s movie adaptation, about the plight of migrant workers.

While the storyline takes place during the Dust Bowl and Depression of the 1930s, when displaced Oklahoma farm workers sought daily sustenance and opportunity in California, the two hope their musicalized production encourages insight into the desperation and strivings of today’s migrant workers.

The writing team will be in Detroit for the technical week and opening of the opera, running May 11-19 at the Detroit Opera House. Plans are in the offing for at least one of the show’s creators to hang out in the lobby and talk to audience members reacting to the production.

“I like the dawning of awareness, and I feel that people begin by watching a work that they think is historical as it catches up on them that very little has changed,” says Korie, whose other projects, with a range of composers, reach from musical theater that includes Grey Gardens to opera that includes Harvey Milk.

“Some people respond to the issue of immigration or a wall. Other people respond to a sort of hidden power that runs the system. Others respond to family tragedies — loss of jobs, loss of income, loss of hope.

“It’s all very relatable because [the characters] are based on real people whom Steinbeck lived with. He followed them on the road for years as he kept his journals.”

A scene from the opera Grapes of Wrath Ken Howard

The commission for the opera, reduced to two acts as presented by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, originally was the idea of Minnesota Opera. The project launched with Gordon, who brought in Korie. Together, they set up some general ideas, but lyrics preceded music.

“There was a moment in my life when I suddenly realized I wanted to write opera,” says Gordon, whose earlier attention had been given to art songs and musical theater.

“I sent 16 of my songs to opera companies and said I really want to write an opera. It was very fruitful because Houston Grand Opera commissioned my first opera, the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Next was Minnesota Opera and Grapes of Wrath.”

In choosing a lyricist, Gordon approached Korie based on stage achievements. Gordon defines the collaboration effect as “ballad opera” with the use of a chorus for background details.

“Steinbeck wrote journalistic chapters in between his story chapters,” Korie explains. “He would write about agribusiness or weather and kind of erect barriers that his characters would run into in the following chapters.

“I converted these chapters to dramatic music with Ricky [using the chorus] to dramatize and set up the obstacles like the dust itself, the [exploitation at] used car lots and the eviction process.”

Nonfiction Operas

Both Gordon and Korie share a special interest in nonfiction opera. While Gordon brings a sense of grief experienced through loss of family and a longtime partner, Korie brings a sense of politics and news experienced through a stint in journalism.

Both have brought their Jewish sensibilities into opera development.

Gordon worked on Morning Star, about Jewish immigrants in early 20th-century New York, and 27, about Gertrude Stein. Korie, in writing the opera Kabbalah with Stewart Wallace, traced the history of mystical interpretation of the Bible throughout the diaspora after spending months in Israel with Kabbalistic communities.

With religion and history in mind, Gordon and Korie are working on an opera about anti-Semitism, a story of the past and an alarm for now. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis adapts the book written by Giorgio Bassani and film directed by Vittorio De Sica taking place in Italy before World War II.

In transforming Grapes of Wrath into opera, the team made a change to the storyline. It has to do with the loss of a character. In the book, the character disappears and is assumed dead; in the opera, the death becomes a personal sacrifice to benefit family by removing a burden.

Both men, entering their 60s and active in the New York gay community, readily tell about mothers as exemplars of people establishing careers in the arts. Gordon’s mom, Eve Samberg (stage name Saunders), was a singer-comedian who entertained in the Catskills, where he joined her as accompanist in his teen years. Korie’s mom, Janet Indick, is a sculptor often working with Jewish themes.

Gordon studied at Carnegie-Mellon University and Korie attended Brandeis and New York universities.

Gordon’s visit to Detroit extends earlier professional travels to the state. He has conducted master classes at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, where he recently delivered a commencement address for graduates of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

Although Grapes of Wrath is sung in English, it will have supertitles to give additional clarity to the lyrics.

“I like to be involved with the supertitle projections, so they don’t distract,” Korie says. “I want audiences [essentially to experience the opera] through the music and acting.

“It’s up to the librettist and composer these days to write dramatically sound works, and supertitles force us to be better in that regard. Now that everyone can read it and understand every word, it better be good.”


The Grapes of Wrath runs May-11-19 at the Detroit Opera House. $35-$160.
(313) 237-7464. michiganopera.org

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Suzanne Chessler’s writing-editing career has spanned many years, and her articles have been featured in secular and religious publications across the state and around the country. There was a period of time when she maintained three regular columns in three different publications – one appearing weekly to spotlight metro volunteers, another appearing weekly to profile stage enthusiasts in community theater and a third appearing bimonthly to showcase upcoming arts programs. Besides doing general reporting, she has had continuing assignments involving health, monetary subjects and crime. Her award-winning work builds on majors in English-speech and journalism earned at Wayne State University, where instructors also were writers-editors on Detroit’s daily newspapers.