For those seeking an opera experience outside the 19th century, Livermore Valley Opera’s (LVO) upcoming production of Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, based on John Steinbeck’s classic novella, fits the bill. The story takes place during the Great Depression, in and around Soledad, California, and revolves around two itinerant farmworkers who are close friends, Lennie Small and George Milton, who dream of having their own farm. The performances take place at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore over two consecutive weekends, Oct. 7–8 and 14–15.
“I really didn’t know the opera,” said stage director Marc Jacobs, who is making his debut with LVO. “I knew of it, but I’d never heard it. And I’ve still never seen it, which I kind of love because I am coming to it with fresh eyes and just really depending on the story, the words, and the music and not anything I’ve seen before.”
Jacobs says that he finds the story to be very gripping and is taking a “filmic” approach to presenting the work so audiences “feel it in their gut.”
The director explained: “It’s almost like waiting for a time bomb to go off because you’ve got the character of Lennie, who is mentally disabled and is this giant of a man, but he’s got the mind of a 5-year-old boy. … When the curtain goes up, you’re seeing five men silhouetted in fog coming right toward the audience with flashlights, looking for these two refugees. They are running because Lennie has touched a girl inappropriately with no idea that it would be mistaken for an attack. So you see [Lennie and George’s] destiny right from the first moment of the opera — which is to run, to try to survive, and then to try to find work and hang on to it as long as they can before Lenny makes another horrible mistake like that.”
Jacobs also says that he is using a lot of projections to help tell the story. “One example is in the first scene, when Lennie and George are in a swamp hiding out from the people who are chasing them, and they bunk down for the night in there. We see them go to sleep, but rather than bringing the curtain down, what we have is the stars being projected. We see the whole galaxy moving behind them as they sleep because I wanted to emphasize how small these men are in the universe and that fate is kind of the big boot waiting to step on the proverbial mouse’s nest. I wanted to give a sense that destiny in the world is this big thing around them.”
American composer Carlisle Floyd wrote both the music and the libretto for Of Mice and Men, which premiered in 1970. Floyd, who died in 2021 at the age of 95, grew up in South Carolina and was the son of a Methodist minister. He wrote more than a dozen operas that were steeped deeply in the culture of the American South. His most well-known is Susannah, which premiered in 1955. Widely regarded as the founding father of American opera, he won numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 National Medal of Arts, presented to him by then-President George W. Bush.
LVO Music Director Alexander Katsman describes Floyd’s score as “quite dissonant and atonal” but also as having sections of “really beautiful lyrical melodies.” He also says the libretto is impressive.
“The way [Floyd] does the pattern of English, which I consider a very challenging language for opera, is just incredible,” said Katsman, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. “When you compose an American opera, it is very difficult to avoid it sounding like musical theater. But he really does an incredible job. It’s such a gripping story, and each character is so well written out — we really care about them.”
LVO was founded in 1992 and has mostly presented the standard operatic canon, so this production marks a new direction for the organization.
“We’re a small company in an area where contemporary opera is not particularly the most popular thing,” said Katsman, who has worked with LVO for more than 15 years, originally as a pianist. “But we wanted to branch into something a bit different, and one of the reasons we really wanted to do this opera is because we have always considered it an American classic, and we were really excited about the California connection to Steinbeck and to the story itself.”
In fact, for this production, LVO has partnered with the National Steinbeck Center (NSC) in Salinas “to engage in cross-promotional reports, build community bridges, and enhance the audience experience.” To that end, there will be a display of Steinbeck memorabilia in the lobby of the Bankhead Theater throughout the run of the show, and NSC archivist Lisa Joseph will be available to answer questions prior to each performance.
Both Jacobs and Katsman agree that the cast, which includes tenor Matthew Pearce as Lennie, baritone Robert Mellon as George, tenor Chad Somers as Curley, and soprano Véronique Filloux as Curley’s wife, are superb.
“The casting in this particular production is amazingly good,” said Jacobs. “We heard them sing through the entire score yesterday, and then I had them read through the libretto like a script, and both the singing and the acting were [incredible]. They all had done their own research and came to the table with lots of ideas about their characters.”
“I love the cast,” said Katsman. “Most of the singers are local, and quite a few of them have done several shows with us. We always pay attention to the quality of all the singers, not just the two or three main characters. From the time I became the music director, that was a priority.”
Jacobs is also thrilled by the fact that this is a completely American opera and believes the story is still relevant today.
“With so much of opera, you’re dealing with mythical people,” said Jacobs. “But this is a real American story, and they are American characters — people at the bottom of the food chain in America as far as being the workforce. We have the same problems today with undocumented workers who have to work in the fields. My goal with this production is to give something that works on a very realistic level and to give the audience a real feeling of immediacy and a real sense of identification with these characters.”