Michigan Opera’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ is powerful and wrenching
DETROIT, Mich.–Some novels that are 80+ years or so old and get taught in high school English classes can seem tired and even out of date. But what, in fact, makes them worth reading and teaching year in and year out, is their endurance standing up to the truth decade after decade.
Michigan Opera Theatre this week is performing The Grapes of Wrath, a powerful adaptation that reminds us of the universal themes of the need for empathy for human beings who face natural and economic tragedies, and the unfair fallout of unregulated capitalism.
Set during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl that gripped the agrarian Southeast of the United States, and amidst a caravan of Okies who left their worthless farms for imagined greener pastures in California, The Grapes of Wrath opera was composed by Ricky Ian Gordon who has brought clear influences of Gershwin to his unique, occasionally jazzy score that in some ways reminds us of Porgy & Bess.
Over the decades, because of the film starring Henry Fonda and the Bruce Springsteen album titled “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” it’s easy to think that Tom is the protagonist. He’s not. It’s Ma Joad, played to wonderful depth by mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner who holds this family and story together. Indeed, as in most family tragedies, it is the women who are the glue and the stabilizing force. Not the men.
Also standing out in this production are tenor Geoffrey Agpalo as fallen preacher Jim Casy whose clarion vocals and stage presence meet Gordon’s score with great texture and glory, and soprano Deanna Breiwick as Rosasharn who has one of the most harrowing scenes in literary history–so powerful that the film version of Steinbeck’s story left it out. The MOT chorus also does a splendid job.
The opera has a gradual open, with the ensemble on stage eating at the Holy Ghost Mission soup kitchen as theater patrons file in to the Opera House. It is a fitting approach to a story that has more soul and tragic depth than most operas. The story, so familiar, builds gradually as two of the most gut wrenching episodes ever written in American literature play out on stage over two and a half hours.
Breiwick’s performance of “One Star,” is hopeful, and perhaps this opera’s “Summertime,” from Porgy & Bess. “Truck Drivers,” sung by Mae, a desert café waitress, is also a ray of hope in a terrific scene about how people can be kind and want to be kind. “The Creek/I Can Be of Help” sung by Noah, the mentally challenged Joad son, played by Hugh Russell, may stay with you forever.
The opera was written more than a decade ago. The story was written in the 1930s. But the libretto, written by Michael Korie, manages to smack us in the face and shake us as we see and remember that the Joads jalopy truck was part of a caravan, yes a caravan!, of similarly afflicted families desperately trying to make it across the Mojave Desert in mostly Ford trucks held together with spit and chewing gum to a place they hoped would pay them enough silver picking fruit to fill their bellies if not their Depression-scalded spirits.
There’s a reason why great works approaching 100 years old are still taught in schools. Though one wonders if current government forces will find ways to soon ban the book because it so clearly illustrates the democratic need for empathy in how we make policy. A sign hangs in the back wall of the set, a quote from The New Testament attributed to Jesus: “If anyman thirst, let him come unto me and drink.”
“The Grapes of Wrath” begins a four-show run at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 11, at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway St., Detroit. Subsequent shows are May 15, 17 and 19. $39-$175. 313-237-7464 ormichiganopera.org.