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Monday, October 2, 2023

Life + Arts

UH premieres opera

Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera The Grapes of Wrath will be making its collegiate premiere this weekend.

The Grapes of Wrath, adapted from John Steinbeck’s epic novel about the American dream, follows a family facing the adversities of the late 1930s – an economic depression, unfavorable weather, poverty, prejudices and death. The opera chronicles the Joad family’s expedition from Oklahoma to California, as they try to stay driven by hope and become ennobled by their struggle to find a better life.

The opera opens with a mournful account sung by Oklahoma croppers, pointing to the devastation caused by lack of rain and economic depression.

Introduced as a man on parole from McAlester Prison, Tom Joad has served his time for homicide. Once he makes it home, he finds that the rest of his family has been evicted and plans to move to California in search of work.

Worried her son’s heart has been tarnished by prison, Ma Joad asks him to lead the family to California.

‘I love the role (of Ma Joad) – she is wonderful,’ said Laura Riggs, who is pursuing a master’s in music. ‘It’s a very strong character. She holds the family together.’

Ma Joad’s request and the obligation he feels to his family is enough to make Tom go along for the ride even though it may cost him his life to break parole.

As the family, along with former preacher Jim Casy, travels down busy Route 66, they are labeled as trash by the other migrant workers, who call them ‘Okies.’

Bursting the Joads’ hopeful bubble about finding decent work, a ragged man who has already been to California tells the travelers there isn’t any work left.

The scenes grow in intensity as conditions worsen and the chances for change grow slimmer. In the last act of the opera, with only a few surviving members of the family, the Joads are faced with tough decisions that test their patience, dignity and pride.

Considering the show’s length and density of both text and music – 40 scenes condensed into three acts plus nearly three hours of music – The Grapes of Wrath is a singular production for UH.

‘There’s very specific vocal requirements,’ said Buck Ross, director of the Moores Opera Center. ‘We have about 60 singers that audition for us for any given opera. Some of them are ready to do big roles and some of them are ready to do small roles, it just depends on where they are in their vocal progress.’

For vocal performance sophomore Joshua Green, The Grapes of Wrath marks his first time singing solo in an opera. Having to play four characters in the third act was a challenge, but encouraging to his growth as a musician, he said.

The opera will also be freshman vocal performance major Princeton Kenard Miles’ second performance in an opera. Playing multiple roles, Miles is happy to be premiering yet another work, his first being Florencia en el Amazonas. Miles is also excited to have the composer in house on Friday night.’ ‘

‘It makes it a lot more interesting and it makes you want to do a good job. We want to do (well) for the opera’s composer,’ Miles said. ‘I’m going to try to get him to sign my score.’

Supertitles of Michael Korie’s libretto will be shown above the stage and the opera will be performed and sung in English, April 3 through 6 at Moores Opera House.

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