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Arts and Entertainment Friday, Mar. 15, 2013 7 years ago

"Of Mice and Men" at the Sarasota Opera: a TWIS spotlight on an American masterpiece

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by: Greg Bortnichak

1937: John Steinbeck published a book that was about as thick as your average hardtack wafer, but would become one of the most controversial and frequently censored works of American literature. Ever. Little did Steinbeck know that he had created a work that in some states of the U.S. would be required reading in classrooms, and in others, would be the final word in courtrooms determining whether or not to execute criminals of questionable mental facility. The book was originally called Something That Happened, but after reading the line, "The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go often awry," in Robert Burns' poem "To A Mouse," he changed the title to: Of Mice and Men.

1970: Celebrated American composer Carlisle Floyd premiered his operatic adaption of Of Mice and Men at the Seattle Opera. Born in South Carolina and residing in Tallahassee, Fla., opera's Southern gentleman was about become the undisputed Father of American Opera.

Valentine's Day, 2013: A day when most Americans are scrambling to assemble bouquets and boxes of chocolate, or hoping that someone will give them some modicum of validation by the end of the night, I am preparing to begin my series of interviews for a piece on the Sarasota Opera's 2013 production of Of Mice And Men. This opera is a pointed homage to the necessity of human companionship and the ultimate tragedy of isolation, and I am convinced that, inadvertently, Valentine's Day really is a construction meant to drive the majority of people to contemplate loneliness. It seemed appropriate to me, then, that it was on Valentine's Day when I really began to delve into the world of the characters and the creators of Of Mice and Men.The story of Of Mice and Men primarily revolves around the relationship of George and Lennie, two migrant field workers in the Great Depression who live an extraordinarily barren existence pursuing a shared dream of having a small plot of land where they can someday build their own modest homes. Lennie is a large man of great strength with a child-like infatuation for soft things. He dreams of living off the land and tending to his own rabbits, which he would be free to pet day and night. Lennie's great undoing, however, is his inability to know his own strength and to stand on his own socially. Unlike Lennie, George is small in stature, smart and quick-witted. He yearns to be freed of the indentured servitude of farm labor and for genuine human connection. The story ends tragically, very tragically. But I would be doing you a great disservice by giving away the ending ...

I sat down to begin my interviews with the Sarasota Opera's leads in Of Mice and Men---Michael Hendrick, tenor (playing Lennie Small), and Sean Anderson, baritone (playing George Milton)---feeling very fortunate that, with the amount of emotional energy the roles demand of their singers, these two men were gracious enough to go on the record with me to detail their experiences. After all, this is a drama that is as minimalist as it is all-encompassing. It is designed that way, like a marathon runner, without an ounce of extra weight to slow its impact, or fall even a breath out of step with the audience. There are no stock characters in this work. No comic relief. These two men will carry the entire story onstage in almost every scene, giving themselves wholeheartedly to characters that, to varying degrees, live somewhere in all of us."It is impossible for us to sing while we're crying ... It's important to cry it out so that you can create the feeling instead of feeling it," Sean Anderson says when asked about his dramatic strategy for portraying George on stage. It is Anderson's first time playing the role of George, and understandably, the man has a lot on his mind. Both Anderson and Michael Hendrick have been in intensive rehearsals for this production, and have spent an exponentially greater amount of time offstage solidifying their own relationships with their characters and seeking a greater understanding of the story as a whole. It is the latter which drives my line of questioning.

Both men speak in a manner that is very thoughtful, but not quite contemplative. In fact, it almost seems as if they're venting. Hendrick breathes deeply and exhales slowly: "What's amazing to me about this story is that we live in a day where our phones have become everything ... and now articles are coming out about how people tend to be always in their own screens, not interacting with other people, and that creates a bit of a sense of loneliness. Here we are in the 21st century, but yet we have these little devices and we can we look up anything in the world we want to look up, but so often we are caught up in that insular world of our devices and we are sitting right next to people, and we don't even get to know our own neighbors. To me, this story is really about wanting to connect with someone and to live your life with someone who will take care of you. It's a universal human principle."Hendrick adds: "I play Lennie as not mentally handicapped, not defective, but as a simple, child-like---not childish---kid in a grown man's body. It hits so close to home with so many people. No one leaves without tears in their eyes because no one doesn't have someone in their life like Lennie."

Sean joins in just as thoughtfully, speaking to the triumphantly successful and enduring nature of this work: "Modern operas, they have their premiere, and then you never know which ones will stand the test of time ... Every single word that's in this absolutely has to be there. The drama, and the way the music complements the drama, this is exactly what opera should be."

I left my first set of interviews feeling invigorated, and ultimately stimulated by the concepts an honest discussion of this opera raised. I had to be at work soon, and it was raining, so I rushed off to the bar that pays my bills. Later that night, it was flooded with singles.

Of Mice and Men is now playing at the Sarasota Opera, with performances scheduled through Saturday, March 23. Please check back with This Week In Sarasota for the conclusion of this piece, featuring an in-depth look at the work with its composer, Carlisle Floyd. For information on performance schedule and ticketing, please visit sarasotaopera.org.

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