Q & A with Ricky Ian Gordon

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon is one of the country’s most beloved contemporary composers, defying genre and amassing diehard fans ranging from Nathan Gunn and Harolyn Blackwell to Audra McDonald and Kristin Chenoweth. With an upcoming Kennedy Center concert, Orchid Classics release, and memoir coming out this July from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, he’s having quite a moment in the sun. We caught up with him to ask his thoughts on our April 17th production of his opera, The Grapes of Wrath.

Did you love Grapes of Wrath when you first read it in school?

I never read it in school! I’ll be honest, I read it on an airplane. In 2005 or so, after the good people at Minnesota Opera suggested it to me. But I’ll tell you something else: I’m glad I didn’t read it in school. Because I never would have gotten it back then! It really blew me away – and I would have missed so much of the depth and truth of it back in high school. Even just the ending – the most startling ending ever. So devastating and uplifting.

Was it difficult to adapt?

Yes and no. I knew it needed a dramatist, not just a poet. So I brought it to Michael Korie who said, let me take this to MacDowell (where he had a residency that summer) and see. I was so nervous, how could he possibly get all that story on the stage and not lose the poetry? Let me tell you, he came back with the opening number – “The Last Time There Was Rain” – and it was so genius, his idea of letting the chorus relay those gorgeous interstitial chapters where Steinbeck is describing America, I went home and wrote the opening number in like 5 days. From then on it was just one big terrible wonderful scary enormous joy.

And then word really got out – the premiere at Minnesota Opera sold out, people were selling black market tickets for $1000!

Yes it was an amazing experience, that premiere. But it’s just so big, so expensive, very few people can do that kind of work anymore. We’ve done shorter leaner versions in Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Anchorage… but nothing like the MasterVoices production. First and foremost because none had Ted Sperling at the helm! He always makes something theatrical happen, he is such a man of the theater that way. And there’s not one inch of stage space to spare. But this production is very different than the last one in 2010!

How so?

Well first, the incredible cast inspired us to write some new things. Like John Brancy – we had to give him more to do! So we expanded the square dance scene and gave him some great houndoggin’ moments that are so fun, with new orchestrations in that scene too. And a moment for the kids, where they see a toilet for the first time – it’s hysterical and touching, right from the book, but we had to cut it in the original version. So there are some wonderful moments no one has seen before – not even me! Oh and the beautiful number “The Day the Rain Began,” a counterpoint to “The Last Time There Was Rain”… okay that’s it, no more spoilers from me.

Well, we can’t wait. Thanks for your time, Ricky!

Don’t miss this incredible night! Experience Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, transformed into a breathtaking opera by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie. Brought to life by a stellar cast from opera and Broadway, alongside the MasterVoices chorus and Orchestra of St. Luke’s, under the direction of Ted Sperling.