Of Mice and Men, part of the 2008 Fort Worth Opera Festival.
JOHN STEINBECK AND HIS MIRROR ON AMERICA
Taking a line by Robert Burns as his title, American John Steinbeck (1902-1968) crafted a literary gem that few can read without weeping. Set in Depression-era California, in an area much like the Salinas Valley where Steinbeck grew up, Of Mice and Men chronicles the dilemma of George, a rugged ranch hand who finds himself the sole caretaker of Lennie Small. Big and gentle-spirited Lennie is severely handicapped mentally. Because of a promise made to Lennie's dying aunt, George feels himself morally obligated to care for Lennie. But caring has implications that affect his own future, and ultimately force George to make a horrific choice in order to protect Lennie's dignity.
Of Mice and Men portrays the integrity of a promise, the power of a dream, and the cruelty of those who cannot comprehend either. It was a huge hit and put Steinbeck's name on the literary map forever. Of Mice and Men went quickly from novel (1937) to stage play (1938) to the screen (1939). Steinbeck continued probing human nature in a string of masterpieces: The Red Pony, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row and The Pearl. In Steinbeck's prose, rugged American individualism is pitted against the pressure to conform or, for that matter, to surrender. His characters mirror the best and worst of human nature, and their ultimate destiny is often tragic.
CREATING THE OPERA OF MICE AND MEN
Even as a youth in South Carolina, composer Carlisle Floyd (b. 1926) was interested in writing plays. He preferred the faster pace of dramatic theater above what he called the "slow, arbitrary, and artificial" pace often found in opera. His passion for the written word led him to pen his own texts, or libretti, for his operas-always a bold decision for a composer. Success came early: his second musical work, the opera Susannah (1956), has become the second most performed American opera after George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Three operas followed, none fulfilling the high expectations that settle in after a composer's initial hit. Then, in autumn 1963, Floyd reread Of Mice and Men:
"I was struck by its play-like qualities in addition to its memorable characters and marvelously theatrical scenes. Not knowing at the time that Steinbeck had very successfully dramatized his book for the stage shortly after its publication, I thought I detected act-endings and scenes that built to curtains."
The following spring, Floyd was approached by Kurt Herbert Adler with the idea of writing an opera to be commissioned by the Ford Foundation. Adler encouraged Floyd to consider a story by John Steinbeck and the kindling was ignited. Floyd labored five years to complete Of Mice and Men. He called it his most difficult work up to that time, saying,
I have never before invested what seemed at times the endless amount of labor required to complete the opera. To be fair, I should also confess that, as is sometimes the case with difficult and willful children, no other gave me as much pleasure once it was finished.
Floyd insisted upon certain points from the beginning. He wanted to keep the opera short and concise (c. two hours), avoiding what he called "diffusions" of the plot that would weaken the drama. Also, Floyd intended to treat the mentally handicapped Lennie as a child, musically and dramatically, so as to have full expressive possibilities and to avoid the problem of how to portray a character he described as having "almost total emotional and mental vacuity." For Curley's Wife, the tarty temptress married to the boss's mean son, Floyd envisioned a lyric or dramatic coloratura. In this way he could juxtapose her high virtuosic singing (dissonant in moments of falseness and conflict) with her unadorned melody in emotionally honest passages, such as her tender duet with Lennie in Act Ill. There, her role reaches its pinnacle as they exchange heartfelt dreams only seconds before Lennie inadvertently kills her.
"A gripping performance of Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men" Read the full review from KERA's Arts & Seek HERE
In his dual role as composer and librettist Floyd took up Steinbeck's 1938 play script as his starting point. After succumbing to the lure of the play, Floyd realized he had missed crucial elements of the original drama, relying too much on Steinbeck's theatrical instincts. After all, a good opera libretto must be far more than a transfer of play to music. It needs to be a recreation of a story, tailored to the requirements of voices and orchestra.
Once Floyd identified his basic procedural error, he started afresh, stripped the novel to its central elements, and exposed what he called "the pathetic, fierce pursuit of a simple, if ultimately doomed, dream by two itinerant ranch workers." George became the propelling force; Lennie, the mirror of his hopes and frustrations; and Curley's Wife, the ultimate antagonist who, in a world full of antagonists, becomes the agent of doom for George and Lennie's fragile dream.
Floyd has been quick to acknowledge his debt to Alban Berg's Wozzeck (1925) and Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes (1945), arguably the two greatest operas of the 20th century. In both operas, a compelling but dismal story is woven seamlessly into an original musical canvas, with nearly every scene flashing like a bullet. While both works were startlingly original, they nonetheless relied upon tried-and-true elements of traditional opera: soliloquies (arias) and duets, ensembles and choruses, a bit of dance, and, perhaps most importantly, instrumental interludes to express emotions and convey plot.
Floyd uses all of these elements in Of Mice and Men, including dramatic interludes, as well as an orchestral postlude that paints the shocking sadness of the opera's end. With mastery and precision, Floyd employs the most vivid elements of the 20th century operatic language: expressive speech-song, fragmentation and overlay of phrases, strong orchestral imagery, pulsating rhythmic drive, and dissonance versus consonance to pace the action.
The first production of Of Mice and Men by the Seattle Opera Association on January 22, 1970, brought together a fortuitous combination of talent: stage director Frank Corsaro, and musical directors Henry Holt and Anton Coppola, with tenor Robert Moulson and baritone Julian Patrick in the roles of Lennie and George. Floyd confessed, "If the opera had not succeeded, the fault would have been entirely mine." But it did succeed, with nationwide acclaim.
Still, real success for a new opera has three stages. First, it must find that initial performance - a tiresome task even in Mozart's day, but an extraordinarily difficult one in our time. Then, the work must gain an often elusive second production. Yet that is not enough. Opera companies must return to the work, staging new productions, and exposing new audiences to the piece until, voilá, the opera enters the narrow column of standard repertory. To add a fourth step, singers must gravitate to the roles, and either bring the prestige of their reputations or enhance their own career by championing these new roles. Of Mice and Men has achieved all four of these goals, and become one of the most often performed of all American operas, increasingly playing to rapt audiences abroad (Nantes, 1999, Bregenz, 2001). And the character of Lennie has become a signature role for tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, helping propel and define his career as a remarkable singer-actor.
EXPERIENCING THE OPERA
Floyd's Of Mice and Men wrings our hearts. On the one hand, it is dark. We go through an accelerating crescendo of five deaths: the mouse, ranch hand Candy's dog, the puppy, Curley's Wife, and finally Lennie himself. There are violent arguments between Curley and his wife, and the awful scene when the ranch hands gang up on Candy, convincing him to shoot (or, let them shoot) his beaten down old dog. This chilling scene is intensified by the Ballad Singer who, while we wait for the shot that fells the dog, plays his harmonica and sings "Moving' on." We will hear this harmonica again in the opera's final measures, drifting above the mournful sound of the orchestra.
But there are other moments. There is George's integrity that, even when frustrated by Lennie's ineptitude and misdeeds, will ring clear in a widely stretched, jagged motive "I want you to stay." And there is the transparent spirit of Lennie, who seeks only a soft creature to pet and the stability of a real home: "This is all I really wanted." Finally, there is unabashed joy as both men bellow in near unison their dream for a ranch of their own: "And we'll live off the fat of the land!" But, as Steinbeck knew all too well, such simple dreams are not so easily gained. Accusations fly as violence between Curley and his wife erupts and spreads to the by standers, leaving George and Lennie caught in the middle. A sweeping mixture of darting musical lines and intense overlay of orchestral colors brings us, too, into the fray.
Throughout it all, the orchestration is riveting. The instrumental opening of the opera establishes the music of fear-"running music"-angular, almost jazzy, anxiety-driven pulsations we hear again at the end when Lennie flees his murder of Curley's Wife. The beautiful but eerie orchestral introduction to Act Ill mirrors the instrumental conclusion of the opera. A last moment of peace as Curley's Wife proclaims her dream of stardom is followed by pulsating blasts of orchestra and unsettling rests. Her neck is snapped by a frightened Lennie as we listen and watch helplessly.
Helpless, too, is George. Fleeing will no longer work for this pair. We hear the "running music" again, more desperate, more explosive until it dissolves into a lonely cry of the oboe. In one of the most beautifully crafted endings ever written for an opera, George urges Lennie to sing of their farm, their home, the security they both seek. With soaring melody lines, swept by strings playing a motive of hope ("I see it, George-I see it, over there'"), George bestows on Lennie a vision of bliss as a last gift to this man-child whom he can no longer protect.
As sad as it all is-and it is unbelievably sad-the music transcends and uplifts everything. Through the music, composer- librettist Floyd has succeeded in freeing John Steinbeck's story from the limits of time, place, and circumstance. We gain power from this opera. We need not be devastated, but can find greater compassion towards others and deeper commitments to our promises. That is Floyd's message to us. - Dr. Carol Reynolds © 2008
Dr. Carol Reynolds spent 21 years at Southern Methodist University as a Music History Professor, specializing in opera, Russian Studies, and German Romanticism. She now lives on a ranch in Montague County, Texas, raising goats, and has launched a new career creating arts programming and educational materials for the internet at www.professorcarol.com.
Of Mice And Men
Music and Libretto by Carlisle Floyd
Conductor Joe Illick
Director Richard Kagey
Scenic Designer Vicki Davis
Costume Designer Susan Memmott-Allred
Makeup & Wig Designer James P. McGough
Lighting Designer Nichola Cavallero
Chorus Master Mark Stamper
Stage Manager Kurt Howard
Repetiteur Tyson Deaton
Vocal Coach Mary Dibbern
Featuring the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
The Cast in Order of Vocal Appearance
Lennie Small Anthony Dean Griffey
George Milton Phillip Addis
Curley Matt Morgan
Candy Stephen West
Curley's Wife Brandi Icard
Slim Steven Mumbert
Carlson Adam Sattley
Ballad Singer Scott Scully