Staging Steinbeck

'Of Mice And Men' Becomes An Opera Of American Toil And Tragedy.

SOPRANO HELEN TODD didn't grow up on a farm. She was a small-town girl, from Watseka, Illinois, population 6,000, but was just one generation removed from a life on the land. Some of her happiest childhood moments, she says, were spent out in her grandparents' barn, nursing the lambs, tumbling in the hay.

So when she first heard the opera Of Mice and Men, a tragedy about migrant farm laborers in Depression-era California, she was moved to tears.

"I can see my relatives in the story, how they went through the Depression," Todd says. "My parents were from farms and my grandparents on both sides were farmers. This story is close to my heart."

Todd sings the role of Curley's Wife, the only female character in the 1970 opera, which Arizona Opera opens this weekend in Tucson. Though it was former Arizona Opera chief Glynn Ross who first commissioned the work from Carlisle Floyd for the Seattle Opera years ago, Arizona Opera has never before staged it. In fact, the new production, a collaboration among five companies, marks the first time Arizona has tackled any 20th-century American work.

The tale is based on the classic 1937 novella by John Steinbeck, chronicler of America's downtrodden. The austere set conjures up a bunkhouse, a barn and a hill, and the singers dress in Depression drab. To Todd, the opera rings true.

"When I close my eyes and listen to the music, I can see my hometown," she says. "There's so much country in it. Mr. Floyd is a composer who can write Americana music like no one else."

Composer and librettist Floyd, born in South Carolina in 1926, has had a long career of bringing American operas to the stage, drawing on American themes and musical forms. He's best known for Susannah, an adaptation of the biblical story transposed to rural Appalachia. Right now he's at work on Cold Sassy Tree, based on the Olive Anne Burns novel about a rural Georgia town. Neglected for some years, Of Mice and Men has enjoyed a remarkable resurgence in the past year, with half a dozen companies reviving it. Arizona has been able to draw on the new pool of Mice veterans.

Todd sang Curley's Wife in the Cleveland Opera production as well. Dean Ely, who alternates the role of George with Stephan Bryant, sang the bass-baritone part for New York City. Arizona Opera's Lennie, tenor Michael Hendrick, sang the same role with Utah Opera.

Of Mice and Men follows the peregrinations of two farmhands for hire, George and Lennie, who dream of a farm of their own. Lennie is slightly retarded and as the story opens the two men have fled their last job because of misunderstanding over Lennie's interest in a girl's pretty dress, Todd says. At the new place, owner Curley (Dean Anthony) is a mean cuss who abuses his young wife. The lonely young woman, who dreams improbably of Hollywood, disobeys his orders to talk to any of the men lodged in the bunkhouse.

Curley's Wife, unnamed by both Steinbeck and Floyd, is in just four scenes, Todd says, including a lovely duet with Lennie, who sings of owning his own place, while the Wife sings of being in pictures. "But I change the course of the story," Todd points out. "Something bad happens."

To opera lovers tentative about seeing a modern work in English, Todd offers this seductive evaluation: "The music is gorgeous, it's like a teardrop on a violin...It's very touching. The story is so powerful, I still stand in the wings every night and just cry."

Arizona Opera stages Of Mice and Men at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, February 11 through 13, at the TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. The opera will be sung in English, with English surtitles, with live music performed by the Arizona Opera orchestra. Tickets range from $17 to $67, and are available at the TCC box office, through Ticketmaster (321-1000;, and by calling Arizona Opera at 293-4336.