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The operatic adaptation of Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men' adds feminine twists.

By Ben Fulton

JANUARY 19, 1999:  For most, John Steinbeck's famous short novel of two men struggling through the wreckage of the Great Depression is about the importance of hope and the power of dreams.

Dreams are so vital, in fact, that one of the book's central characters, George, kills his friend Lennie at the exact moment his dream seems most real. It's better to die wrapped in illusion than live through one more heartache--especially during a time of extreme hardship that put everyone near wits' end.

But oh what happens to the story when a woman's role is enlarged. New layers of meaning rise to the surface. There's more to see, more to reflect upon.

That may not have been American composer Carlisle Floyd's original intention when he carried Steinbeck's book over into opera; but as most people know, unintended effects are just as important as original motives. That's especially true of a plot that uses human misunderstanding as its main engine.

The only female character of importance in Of Mice and Men is simply known as "Curley's Wife"--a primped young woman always fighting for her husband's attention, when she's not dreaming of movie stardom or testing the power of her sexuality around her husband's ranch hands. It is she who unintentionally separates drifters George and Lennie, pays for it with her life and then catalyzes the story's heartbreaking conclusion: George feels compelled to shoot Lennie, the only partner in his dream to own a small farm.

When Floyd originally approached Steinbeck's work for adaptation, he added a brothel scene. He changed his mind quickly, though, discovering that adding more women "would actually destroy the telling dramatic equation of a single woman in the midst of a group of men."

In time, Floyd came to an even more striking conclusion as he completed his opera: "The real antagonist in the drama is Curley's Wife, and to a less obvious degree, Lennie himself. The drama, to my mind, is a study of human attachment in an environment of harsh personal isolation and despair."

Eminently qualified for the role in Utah Opera's production of the opera, which makes its Utah premiere Saturday, Jan. 16, is soprano Diane Alexander. Unlike the often contrived drawing-room intrigue of old European opera, Of Mice and Men is decidedly American, decidedly modern and, with the Great Depression as its stage, decidedly realist in tone. It might not be tough to guess that Alexander is American--born and raised in Rhode Island. She has starred as the central character in another Floyd opera set in a rural environment, Susannah. Like Curley's Wife in Of Mice and Men, Susannah must contend with her sexual power and her reputation.

Sex plays as a much more furtive ingredient in Of Mice and Men. So, too, does the role of Curley's Wife. She's seldom seen through the course of the opera, but always felt working behind the scenes by other characters. They call her "a tart" to her back. As a character, she's not well-liked. She is, however, powerful. Much like the young woman breast-feeding an old man at the end of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, Curley's Wife casts a net over Of Mice and Men's design, especially as accentuated by Floyd.

Dreams before death: Curley's wife and Lennie share a moment in Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men.
photo: George Mott
"My character brings in this looming sense that something horrible is about to happen," Alexander says. "When I first tried the role my singing part seemed disjointed and unpredictable, but so is the character. There's a danger that people might not like this character, but I want people to feel that if they peeled away the layers of this girl they would really like her."

As in most grandly conceived opera, singing style offers valuable clues to the heart of each role. When Curley's Wife puts on the fašade in front of men, her singing style is deceitfully colorful. When she's being emotionally honest, as with Lennie, her singing is less decorative and more resonant. Throughout Of Mice and Men, Floyd employs an arresting amount of dissonance, and lots of potent rhythm.

"After finding the right combination of seduction and spark for this role, the biggest challenge was dealing with the physical demands of timing in the music," Alexander says.

There's an opaque poignancy in the death of Curley's Wife at the hands of Lennie. Stroking her hair, he's reminded of soft animal fur. But when he refuses to stop touching her, she screams and he panics. "The only time she lets down her guard is when she's alone with Lennie, and that's when she gets killed," Alexander notes. "Otherwise, she has walls."

All of that may speak to the dilemma and paradox of feminine beauty. Women, especially during the Depression, used beauty--often the only power they had--to get what they wanted. But that power can have lethal limitations.

"The only way she gets attention is through her sexuality, which, unfortunately, in this situation isn't going to get her the kind of attention she wants," Alexander says. "People totally misunderstand her. When someone finally listens to her, it's Lennie. She finds a captive audience for the first time, but it ends in disaster."

For Alexander, her character's attraction to fame, movies and magazines illustrates another level of have and have-nots--that of the famous and the unknown. It's one that endures more powerfully today than during the Great Depression.

"It's another installment in the constant struggle between the elite and the powerless. And I think Curley's Wife is even more caught in the middle of it because she is a woman."

But, like central characters Lennie and George, she has her dream. So Curley's Wife, a character who received short shrift from the writer who created her, is brought to fuller life by Floyd. In the opera Of Mice and Men, she adds to the story's overall theme: Dreams are the evidence of hope, and without them life is truly unlivable. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, spiritual poverty is more painful than material poverty.

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