Of Mice and Men opera coming to Edison

The Washington University Opera will present Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, based on John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella, at 8 p.m. March 19-20 in Edison Theatre.

Set during the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men tells the story of two drifters, the wily George and simple-minded Lennie, who find work at a ranch. The pair dream of someday owning a farm, where Lennie can raise rabbits, yet trouble is brewing thanks to the ranch owner’s flirtatious wife.

When a tragic accident occurs, George is forced to make momentous decisions about the fate of his friend.

“When you think of Of Mice and Men, you don’t necessarily think ‘opera,’ but the themes of the book are very operatic,” said Jolly Stewart, director of the Washington University Opera.

“Practically every character has some kind dream that they lose. The ranch hands dream of having their own farms; Curly’s wife dreams of going to Hollywood; Lennie dreams of possessing and caring for these small, soft things, yet he keeps accidentally hurting them.

“The book even reads like a play,” Stewart added, pointing out that Steinbeck’s own stage adaptation won the 1938 New York Drama Critics Circle Award. “Most of the descriptions unfold through dialogue, which Floyd lifts right into his retelling.”

Steinbeck, a college dropout who would go on to win a Nobel Prize in literature, based Of Mice and Men largely on his own experiences as a manual laborer in California.

Floyd, who adapted the book in 1970, was drawn to the play in part because of his own small-town background in South Carolina, where his father was a Methodist preacher.

Floyd’s other works include the widely popular Susannah (1955), an Appalachian opera about judgmental church members and the reputation of a young girl in the community, which won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award.

Both Of Mice and Men and Susannah represent a kind of American parallel to Italian verismo, a genre of opera popular at the turn of the 20th century in which stories deal not with heroes, aristocrats or mythological figures, but with realistic subjects from everyday life, especially working-class characters in environments where passions flair easily and often result in tragic consequences.

Floyd, who also serves as librettist for his operas, taught piano and composition for 30 years at Florida State University and later at the University of Houston. His most recent opera is Cold Sassy Tree, a comedy from 2000.

The 15-member cast is led by alumnus Scott Levin as George and Adam Cromer, a master’s candidate in vocal performance, as Lennie. Nicole Lewis, also a master’s candidate in vocal performance, portrays the rancher’s wife.

John Stewart, director of vocal activities in the Department of Music in Arts & Sciences, conducts.

The performances are sponsored by the music department, which, to prepare for the production, arranged for the principal singers to attend a fall performance of Of Mice and Men at the New York City Opera.

Tickets are $15; $10 for students, seniors and University faculty and staff; and $5 for University students.

For more information or to order tickets, call the Edison Theatre Box Office at 935-6543.

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