I’m not sure what possessed Carlisle Floyd to write an opera version of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” but the result, while awkward in a few places, is nonetheless mostly effective and satisfying.
Being staged through this weekend by the Utah Opera at the Capitol Theatre, “Of Mice and Men” stays scrupulously close to the book on which it is based; there are no deviations from the plot with which you are no doubt at least vaguely familiar already. George (Stephen Bryant) and his gentle-giant friend Lennie (Michael Hendrick) are running, having lost another farm-hand job due to Lennie’s not knowing his own strength. Seems poor Lennie is often killing things accidentally, simply because he pets them and squeezes them too hard, and people have a difficult time with that.
All Lennie and George want is to buy a little farm together and live out the American Dream (albeit without wives or children). Lennie wants to pet the rabbits, and George wants to relax for the rest of his days in an idyllic setting. It’s a pleasant dream, and one that they’re fixed on. As life becomes dreary — and this opera is intentionally, powerfully dreary almost with reprieve from beginning to end — their dream of their little farm brings Lennie and George happiness.
The two find jobs at a ranch owned by the grouchy Curley (Michael Myers), who enjoys ignoring his sympathetically trashy wife (Diane Alexander) and berating his hired help. Trouble begins when Curley picks a fight with Lennie, which ends in Lennie crushing Curley’s hand like a potato chip. Trouble continues when Curley’s Wife (that’s the character’s official name) decides to leave her suffocatingly boring life on the ranch and head out to Hollywood to be a star, except she stops to let Lennie touch her soft hair, and somehow her neck winds up broken.
And that’s when it gets really sad. The entire show is grim and desolate, right down to the sets and costumes. (Even the dresses worn by Curley’s Wife, while rather colorful, seem muted and desperate.) The music fits the atmosphere — or, perhaps, the music CAUSES the atmosphere — filling our ears with jarring chords, odd rhythms, and dissonant sounds. At no point will you tap your toes, nor will you walk out humming anything. In fact, there really aren’t even any “songs,” much less any arias, in the opera — it’s all one long continuous piece of music. And it’s all dreary.
No one has any hope. In fact, fellow farm-hand Slim (Jeffrey Buchanan) encourages George NOT to have hope, because every farm-hand has the same dream, and it never comes true. Still, George is adamant, insisting he and Lennie will be different.
Nonetheless, the two characters who show the most hope — Curley’s Wife (when she decides to leave) and Lennie — are the two who wind up destroyed, never realizing their dreams.
Or maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe the only way to actually get what they hope for is to leave this desolate, awful world. Indeed, as George describes the mythical farm to Lennie one last time, and Lennie finally “sees” it, that’s when the music finally stops being intentionally ugly and becomes beautiful. In his mind, Lennie is truly there at the farm, finally at peace with himself and the world, and finally out of trouble once and for all.
The story is a powerful one anyway, of course — the popularity of the novel and the two movies based on it bear that up — but the addition of music heightens it. The themes of hope and hopelessness are pinpointed, and the tale is as effective is it was in print.
It is occasionally awkward to hear the characters sing about ordinary, mundane things — we’re used to operas being about fantastic, fairy-tale subjects, not everyday things like this — but only in passing. In the end, the story is rich and lovely, and the performances outstanding.
Oh, sure. I know all about opera.
This came about simply because I happened to be going. My pal Pete got free tickets at the last moment -- too late to acquire a date -- so he asked if I wanted to go. I had expressed some interest in this show previously because it sounded interesting, and accessible -- I knew it would be in English, and how could a John Steinbeck story be too high-falutin', even if it was an opera?
So we went, and I found out five minutes before we left my apartment that my Daily Herald editor didn't have anyone else reviewing it. And there you go. Huzzah!