Of Mice and Men
Manitoba Opera, Centennial Concert Hall
23, 26, 29 April, 2016 (all performances begin at 7:30 p.m.)
2 hours, 20 minutes
John Steinbeck. Of Mice and Men. The opera. You’re allowed to be sceptical.
But it works! Oh, how it works.
In fact, any hesitation or cynicism among the 1,700 who attended the Manitoba Opera premiere, among them Members of Parliament and the production’s 90-year-old composter and librettist Carlisle Floyd, likely vanished at first glance of the gigantic, pastoral and slightly transparent mural that welcomed them into the hall.
In hindsight the colourful, rural scene, mimicking the school of American Regionalist painting and evoking John Steuart Curry’s Wisconsin Landscape series, was a harbinger of the next few hours—a thoughtful, appropriate, artistic nod to the time period, the physical setting and the type of characters who would shortly take the stage.
It fit. It worked. It was lit up by flashlights as the opera brusquely began, a search party tracking wandering ranch hands George Milton and Lennie Small. And after the mural was raised and the principals scampered into view, chased by both the police and the first, boisterous passages of the orchestra, the two men convened on a dusky, rustic set accentuated by a small hill upon which stood three telephone poles, again of the Regionalist school but also indicating an eerie, ominous Golgotha.
Again, it worked. Through the opening scene of the first act that hill and those polls hung ominously over George and Lennie, who, by contrast, were singing hopefully about the future—George in the considerate baritone of Gregory Dahl and Lennie in the rambunctious tenor of Michael Robert Hendrick.
If one could not appreciate the subtleties of set design and accessibility of themes, at least they will have enjoyed the performances, which also featured the clear, rising tenor or Joel Sorensen as Curley and the playful, spirited soprano of Nikki Einfeld as Curley’s Wife. Both, especially in Act One’s second scene, had the audience in stitches. A welcome levity.
Chances are, given Of Mice and Men’s popularity among educators and curriculum designers as required reading for young high-schoolers, much of the Centennial Concert Hall audience already knew the plot, knew what to expect. And therein lay part of the risk.
Floyd’s challenge when he composed the opera in 1969—it debuted the following year in Seattle—was writing a libretto that both captured the terse, slang-infused language of Steinbeck’s prose and could be sung, convincingly, by serious performers and received, credibly, by serious opera-goers.
Impressively, he pulled it off; he made it work, although the risks inherent in this opera, in particular, and English, American opera, generally, only begin with the lines.
Of Mice and Men is dingy, soiled and smelly. Its locale is one of barns, bunk-houses and campsites. It is wholly unglamorous; it is entirely minimalist; it is, in a word, “anti-opera.”
And therein lies its magic.
To enjoy Floyd’s adaptation one must retire the snobbishness so much associated with opera, because there is nothing vast, elaborate or exclusive about it. It is a people’s opera, an approachable production with approachable themes, approachable settings, approachable characters.
And, perhaps improbably, but certainly refreshingly, it works.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg writer and Creative Content Specialist at Providence University College and Theological Seminary.