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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Life + Arts

a night at the opera

The Moores Opera Center will be the first to premier The Grapes of Wrath at a university.

Set in the late 1930s, facing a time of drought and economic depression, Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera documents the Joad family through its journey and struggles from Oklahoma to California in search of a better life.

‘I don’t even know what I’m going to do after this,’ vocal performance junior Molly Hanes said. ‘My life is going to be empty because (The Grapes of Wrath) is like the pinnacle of everything I think an opera should be.’

As exciting as a new work may be, Mitchell Galloway-Edgar, a vocal performance graduate student, who plays Pa Joad, said he thinks each show he performs has a different feel, and the spring operas tend to feel a bit rushed.

‘It’s always a hectic fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants show,’ Galloway-Edgar said.

Premiered on Feb. 10, 2007 at Ordway Theater in Minneapolis, Minn., The Grapes of Wrath has only been performed in two other cities: Pittsburg and Salt Lake City.

Having a principle part in the show, ‘It’s always an honor and a responsibility in a way that’s very distinct from a chorus member,’ said Galloway-Edgar.

Buck Ross, director of Moores Opera House and officially the Edythe Bates Old chair in opera, estimates about 13 principal roles and 40 small roles in the show, in addition to members of the chorus and orchestra.

‘We often try to do some large cast shows over the course of the years because obviously our primary goal is to give ‘hellip; experience to our students,’ Ross said.

Taking such a grand-scale production and tailoring it to our stage is no simple task. The sum of the complexities of both the story and the music is enough to intimidate even professional opera producers.

‘A lot of opera companies are going to be afraid of it, because it’ll be expensive,’ Ross said. ‘We’re still doing the whole piece, but clearly we don’t have a million dollar budget to do it either so we have to come up with clever ways of still making it work.’

Making it work is Tom Guthrie’s job as manager of the Moores Opera House, as well as resident designer for the Moores Opera Center, which is the producing agent of the opera company. Through the clever use of projections, Ross and the opera crew are able to add to the show’s ability to transition scenes with ease as well as highlight the originality of the university production.

‘What we were trying to do was create the textures and the flavors of people who are’hellip; against all odds, trying to find a better life,’ said Guthrie.

Five years ago, the Moores Opera Center began implementing projections into productions, often using them to enhance and texture a set. In addition to creating the scenery, he and his crew have another large project – recreating a 1920s model Ford truck.

‘We try to keep our stages as shallow as we can so that the voices are more forward because, even with the unbelievably superior acoustics of this hall, it’s still a big battle,’ Guthrie said.

There is a scale issue, too; to use an actual truck, would be to ruin the set proportions of the stage scenery, yet the truck must still appear realistic. Having built boats, cars and even an airport in recent productions, Guthrie said it has been a ‘year of transportation’ for the crew.

Having one voice battle a 45-50 piece orchestra to be heard is another hurdle to overcome, taking into consideration the types of materials and the shallowness of the scenery.

‘We do not mic the voices of our singers as a rule because, after all, that’s part of their education,’ Guthrie said.

Though two children in the show will have microphones, Moores is very proud of the fact that its singers have a great acoustic hall in which to perform, since ‘it’s not about the scenery, it’s about the music,’ he said.

Boasting an innovative set, hefty cast, chorus and orchestra, the epic-novel-turned-opera is huge in every way imaginable, said Lucy Arner, music director of the Opera Center. Ander will act as the production’s conductor.

Along with the largest percussion section Arner’s ever worked with, the opera calls for a chromatic harmonica, banjo, guitar, washboard, saxophones and an ukulele.

Lee Redfearn III, a music education junior, and music business senior Scott Baker both have the unusual task of playing saxophone in the opera. Redfearn plays alto saxophone, which is heard predominantly as a solo or smaller ensemble instrument.

‘It’s just a totally different environment,’ Redfearn said. ‘I’m not used to sitting next to a clarinet, nor am I used to being in the back behind a harp player.’

While playing with such a large ensemble can take some adjusting, the level at which the performances are executed is the same.

‘Lucy Arner, I think, is a great conductor,’ said Baker, who plays both the tenor saxophone and baritone saxophone in the show. ‘She’s very easy to follow and really good with cuing.’

Jack Beetle is a first year vocal performance graduate student who will be playing the ukulele in the show. A ‘Jack of all trades,’ he also fills the role of Jim Casy. Outside of the opera, he also plays piano, percussion, guitar and some brass instruments.

Learning to play the ukulele was not a big challenge for Beetle.

‘The problem is keeping it in tune with the orchestra, not necessarily playing it,’ Beetle said.

To the best of Arner’s knowledge, it is the only opera with a ukulele in its performance. As jazz accents, a high-hat cymbal will be used; meanwhile, classical violinists will learn to become ‘fiddlers’ to suit the colloquial music of the times, all of which are atypical in an opera.

Described as a ‘hybrid’ work, The Grapes of Wrath has elements of various styles that would make the average arts-enthusiast hesitant to label it either as a musical or opera. The crossover of styles occurs when the singers have to take on a ‘less operatic, more belty or talky’ quality to their voices, Arner said.

Being the first university to perform The Grapes of Wrath, UH will also see Ricky Ian Gordon, the show’s composer, at the Friday night performance.

With the economy being in the dismal state it is in, opera has become more relevant than he would like for it to be, Ross said. Even students can relate to the work’s timeliness.

‘It really mirrors the time of the economic crisis we’re in right now,’ said Andrew Peck, a second year vocal performance master’s student who plays Jim Casy. ‘But it also offers a whole lot of hope for the future that people will make it through.’

For nearly the cost of a movie ticket, Houston can catch The Grapes of Wrath at the Moores Opera House, sung in English. The piece is a libretto by Michael Korie based on John Steinbeck’s Epic novel The Grapes of Wrath. Projected supertitles will be shown above the stage.

‘Considering what ticket prices cost downtown, and what you can get for a $10 or $15 ticket here, it’s the steal of the century,’ Arner said.

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