How a composer cut an hour from his best opera — and made it better

ST. LOUIS — “Kill your darlings,” Tchaikovsky is supposed to have said. Sometimes an artist has to cut out favorite parts of a work in order to make it succeed. People love to quote that line, and yet that unsentimental self-accountability is still too often absent when it comes to making new opera. The Opera Theater of St. Louis, this summer, put on two works by prolific American composers who know something about self-editing. One opera had the benefit of time and a lot of cutting. One, alas, did not.

Ricky Ian Gordon and Philip Glass are radically different composers, but both are blessed with the ability to write a lot of music — and when you write so much, some things invariably come out better than others. It’s no accident that my favorite operas by both these composers are operas that have been drastically revised and reworked some years after their initial premieres. In Glass’s case, it’s “Appomattox,” which the Washington National Opera put on in 2015 with an entirely new second half — not just a revision of the 2007 San Francisco version. In Gordon’s case, the work is “The Grapes of Wrath,” already mightily acclaimed after its 2007 premiere, which the Opera Theater of Saint Louis mounted this summer in an adapted version that was one act and an entire hour shorter than the original. It could stand to be cut even a little more; but the first act, especially, is very good.

“The Grapes of Wrath” represents a near-perfect matchup of composer, librettist, and source material. John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel about the odyssey of the Joad family from the Oklahoma dust bowl to the shantytowns of Depression-era California, is quintessential Americana, aspires to profundity, and narrowly skirts bathos. The same descriptions could be applied to…

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