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Stage Door: The Grapes of Wrath, Pablo Aslan

05/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A compelling story can be mined in several mediums. The Grapes of Wrath has been acclaimed as a novel and movie. In its latest incarnation at Carnegie Hall March 22, presented by The Collegiate Chorale, John Steinbeck's story about Oklahoma sharecroppers hoping for a better life is now a concert. More specifically, a concert rendition of the Ricky Gordon/Michael Korie opera first staged at Minnesota Opera.

Aided by the American Symphony Orchestra, composer Gordon and librettist Korie have transformed their three-act, four-hour opus into a two-hour concert. It features Broadway stars, such as Victoria Clark and Christine Ebersole, and is narrated by Jane Fonda. The new work melds popular musical styles of the 1920s and '30s -- song-and-dance, banjo ballads, jazz and a barbershop quartet -- with the classic drama of grand opera.

Published in 1939, the Dust Bowl-era Grapes of Wrath was a cause célèbre, kick-starting a national debate. It passionately depicted the plight of the poor, symbolized by the Joad family, and slammed big California farmers, who promptly labeled it "communist propaganda." Critics disagreed, awarding it the Pulitzer Prize. Time named it one of the 100 Best English-language novels from 1923-2005. Librettist Michael Korie explains why the 70-year-old story retains its power.

Why The Grapes of Wrath as opposed to Steinbeck's epic East of Eden?
When the idea of adapting "The Grapes of Wrath" was first suggested, I thought it was impossible. Too long, too many characters, and way too complicated a plot for an opera. But when I re-read the novel, I realized Steinbeck had written it in an almost operatic form; many passages musically leapt off the page. I began to look at the many characters as manifestations of one single character -- the Joad family -- and then it clicked. By the way, Eden is another good idea for an opera!

Given the period's rich musical heritage, was it a chance to produce a uniquely American opera?
Steinbeck's language is so American that it calls out for American roots music. It's already a stretch to put this story on at an opera house. We wanted it to be gripping and emotional, powerful and political -- and the key was melody. Over the years, many classical composers had tried to get the rights to make an opera of The Grapes of Wrath, but the estate never granted permission; they felt it needed a particular sound. When they heard Ricky Gordon's music that was it.

What are the great issues here?
Hurricane Katrina hit when we began writing the score and libretto. And the way some of our elected officials responded, namely, "It's a natural disaster, these things happens, it's not our fault" is the same mind-set Steinbeck lambastes in his novel. There is no one "villain" in it. Instead, it's the pass-the-buck system, where no one is willing to take responsibility for the tragic neglect besetting the people. During the Bush years, that mentality was in overdrive: Social services were decimated to return capital to the rich, homes were repossessed, jobs shipped overseas and the financial institutions took everyone down. In that climate, how can The Grapes of Wrath not be current?

How did you decide to use Broadway voices?
The concert version retains many of the big musical set pieces, arias and choral ensembles. We eliminated much of the recitative, replacing it with a narrator who reads sections from the novel, allowing segues from those powerful passages seamlessly into music. It was our chance to try something different - a mix of theater and opera singers.

A different musical heritage plays March 26,27 at the Rose Theater, part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center series. The sexy melancholy of classic Argentine tango seems an ideal mate for the soulful language of American jazz. Its patron saint, bassist, composer and bandleader Pablo Aslan, has spent more than 20 years melding the two. Fans can revel in the artistry, March 26 and 27 at the Rose Theater, part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center series. He is joined by several Argentine musicians, including bandoneón player Raul Jaurena. They perform from Aslan's latest CD "Tango Grill."

A leading figure in the tango revival, Aslan directs Avantango, a tango-jazz ensemble featuring New York-based Argentine musicians and dancers. Known for his improvisational virtuosity, Aslan latest work was hailed as "stunningly inventive" by All About Jazz. It's impossible to tell where tango begins and jazz ends. Accompanied by Paquito D'Rivera, saxophones and clarinet; Gustavo Bergalli, trumpet; Nicolas Ledesma, piano; Abel Rogantini, piano; Daniel Piazzolla, drums and Michael Zisman, bandoneon. For more info: www.jalc.org