Carlisle Floyd is best known for his 1954 biblical fairy-tale Susannah. But his finest work, according to the late Robert Jacobson of Opera News, is Of Mice and Men, a 1970 opera for which the Texas composer wrote both libretto and score. Jacobson calls it the “American Wozzeck.” On April 2, Chicago Opera Theater will offer its local premiere.

As Jacobson hears the work, “The orchestra conveys that uniquely American sound of space, land and vision and the score is full of a strange, dark power, strong and lovely in character as it conveys the wells of loneliness, destructiveness and futility of these characters out of Steinbeck.”

It’s one thing to read and feel loneliness and futility, another to find a musical equivalent that can move people who never read the 1937 John Steinbeck novella. Or move those who did, or, for that matter, move any who saw Steinbeck’s 1937 stage version at the Steppenwolf and Wisdom Bridge theaters or the 1940 film version starring Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr., which featured another very American score by Aaron Copland. Yet the story of how Floyd transferred Steinbeck from the page to the stage shows the creativity deeply moving adaptation requires.

Commissioned to write a work for the San Francisco Opera, Floyd was drawn not just to Steinbeck’s story but to his characters: “I find George and Lennie to be extremely vivid characters in highly dramatic circumstances and a very concentrated story,” he says. “Steinbeck gave us a very touching story of the homeless outsider–and the outsider is something most of my operas (Willie Stark, The Fugitives) have been concerned with. But then the outsider is a very 20th-century invention, starting with Wozzeck and Peter Grimes; those operas were also about individuals faced with an indifferent or miscomprehending society.”

Steinbeck’s characters George Milton and the ironically named Lennie Small are two itinerant Depression-era farm laborers with nothing to sell but their sweat. Lennie has enormous strength but a feeble intellect–and a morbid desire to handle soft objects, like the mouse he accidentally crushes. George tries to supply Lennie’s deficiencies; he puts Lennie’s strength to use and calms Lennie with their shared dream of a farm of their own.

The men find work on a Salinas Valley ranch in central California where the boss’s son Curley, an arrogant bully whose bride’s promiscuity has caused quarrels among the farmhands, picks a fight with Lennie and gets his hand crushed. Curley’s bored, flirtatious wife then takes an interest in Lennie and tries to seduce him in the hayloft. He starts to stroke her pretty hair–and tragedy follows. This leads to George’s final favor to the doomed Lennie, one of the most heartbreaking moments in American literature.

Floyd took several years to complete his first version of the opera; that version contained two-thirds of the current music. Then he scrapped most of the libretto: “I made the mistake of thinking Steinbeck had done my work for me as a librettist. My first scenario was far too long and detailed and didn’t move in the bold strokes that an opera should. I stripped down the second version to its unsentimental essentials to find the premise for the story: how George tries to keep Lennie out of trouble long enough so they can get a place of their own.

“Of Mice and Men is a drama of suspense but most of all, as I saw Steinbeck, a story about a human attachment. With all their flaws, George and Lennie at least have each other, and even a flawed relationship is better than the individual isolation of the other ranch hands. That’s what makes the final tragedy so extremely moving. I tried to show this attachment in the dream duet at the end of the first scene, where the men sing about the farm they hope to own; musically and dramatically, the dream becomes the poetic element in the opera.”

Once Floyd found that core, he knew what wasn’t necessary. “Just before the world premiere we eliminated one scene which was only referred to in the novel. The scene, which came at the end of the second act, had George going to a brothel where he refuses to spend the money he set aside for the dream ranch. When he’s taunted for this by Madame Susie’s girls, he counters with a protest aria, ‘I ain’t going to buck grain the rest of my life.’ But the scene just held up the action. I did save two or three musical entities from it including George’s aria.”

Like the other ranch hands, George and Lennie are at the mercy of the sadistic ranch owner Curley, a representative of the “haves” who determine who gets to work. But Lennie’s situation is worse; he’s as dependent on George as George is on Curley, even though the debt is emotional rather than economic.

“Lennie is an innately friendly, outgoing, and totally trusting human being. But I was stumped on how to deal with him musically, until Steinbeck’s line came to mind where George tells those who knock Lennie, ‘Well, he’s just a big kid.’ Once I thought of Lennie as a child with a kid’s innocence and vulnerability, I felt I could do music that was appropriate to him. I set up Lennie’s theme early on, in the first scene’s aria about the dead mouse, and use it throughout the work.” The first scene, the only one not in the book, depicts Lennie and George running from the police. “I felt this was a wonderful way to get into the opera, a very theatrical opening that gives an idea of what their life on the road has been like.”

Another aspect much praised by critics is Floyd’s treatment of Curley’s wife. “Most people would have expected her to be treated like another Carmen, rather sluttishly. I saw her as a coloratura soprano and a bit of a tease. She simply wants attention and she’s bedazzled by her own dream of Hollywood glamour. Although brighter, in many ways she’s a counterpart of Lennie. Musically I suppose she’s the most distinctive and lyrical element in the opera. I gave them a moment at the start of the third act where they both fantasize about what their lives will be like; it’s based on some sentences in the book which I expanded into a six-minute duet.”

Like evil Claggart (the innocent Billy Budd’s nemesis in Britten’s opera), Curley is the one dark character, the trigger that springs the tragedy. “He’s the other side of the coin from Lennie’s total innocence,” says Floyd. “He’s paranoid, brutal, absolutely uncaring, and constantly looking for a confrontation. So I gave him very angry, agitated music that’s angular, nervous, highly rhythmic and not at all lyrical.”

On Saturday, the music sings for itself. Floyd admits to great confidence in Chicago Opera Theater artistic director Alan Stone. “He’s always been such a staunch supporter of mine,” he says. This Chicago debut has as its two leads tenor William Neill (Lennie) and baritone Lawrence Cooper (George), both of whom have appeared in Floyd’s own mountings of the work. It’s staged by Arthur Masella (a protege of Harold Prince), who recently directed New York City Opera’s world premiere of Dominic Argento’s Casanova’s Homecoming.

Of Mice and Men plays at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, through April 13. Tickets are $14-$36; call 663-0048. On April 23, Chicago Opera Theater opens its last presentation of its 14th season with a staging by Charles Nelson Reilly of Rossini’s Cinderella.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.