Andrew Wilkowske first encountered the stories and characters of American novelist John Steinbeck when he was a student at Willmar High School.
These days, the 1993 Willmar graduate has reason to know Steinbeck especially well.
Wilkowske, 34, a classically trained baritone, sang two years ago in the Minnesota Opera's world premiere of "The Grapes of Wrath."
This next week he takes to the stage at Carnegie Hall in New York for a concert version Monday night of the modern opera based on Steinbeck's epic novel.
Wilkowske has been singing professionally for more than a decade. Reviewers have praised his nimble voice, his versatility and his comic powers, particularly as Papageno in a Virginia Opera production of "The Magic Flute" that one reviewer declared "stole the show." Next week's concert marks his first appearance at Carnegie Hall.
"This is my debut," he said.
Is he nervous? Well, just a little.
"It's an amazing cast," he said. "I can't even believe that I'm on the same list as these people."
The A-list includes Victoria Clark, Christine Ebersole, Nathan Gunn, Elizabeth Futral and Steve Pasquale, plus the Collegiate Chorale and the American Symphony Orchestra. For this concert version of "The Grapes of Wrath," a special narration has been written that will be presented by actress Jane Fonda.
Wilkowske, whose home is in St. Paul, has performed frequently with the Minnesota Opera where he was at one time a resident artist. Three years ago, when the opera company commissioned and produced the premiere of "The Grapes of Wrath," he was cast as Noah, the oldest son in the Joad family who tragically drowns himself. He reprises the role of Noah at Carnegie Hall.
"It was incredibly exciting to be part of the premiere," Wilkowske said. "It was a big hit here in St. Paul. It got national press."
It also got him on the radar screen as the artists were being chosen for the upcoming Carnegie Hall performance.
It's the perfect vehicle for Wilkowske and his enthusiasm for modern repertoire.
Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer of "The Grapes of Wrath," and Michael Korie, who wrote the libretto, drew on many uniquely American musical influences, from jazz choruses to banjo ballads.
The opera is Gordon's first grand opera. "You can hear he's influenced by Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, as well as people like Joni Mitchell. It's a really nice eclectic mix," Wilkowske said. "It's very fun to sing. He really writes well for the voice and with singers in mind. I love the fact that people are still writing opera and that it's still a viable medium."
For the Carnegie Hall performance, the composer rewrote parts of the opera, added some new music and replaced the recitative with a narrator who will read sections from the original novel.
Wilkowske arrived in New York earlier this week for rehearsals, which start today.
"We'll have two rehearsals a day up until show time, and a dress rehearsal Monday afternoon," he said. "It'll be pretty intense."
Wilkowske pursues a busy and varied career these days. The week before heading to New York, he sang at a community orchestra concert in St. Paul. Over the past season he appeared as Figaro in no less than four productions of "The Marriage of Figaro" and one of "The Barber of Seville," a marathon he recounted in an award-winning blog.
This year he has set his sights on learning three new roles. He also has started giving voice lessons.
He still visits Willmar frequently to see his parents, Doug and Mary Wilkowske, and for the occasional local performance. His most recent appearance was last October, when he and a pianist friend gave an evening recital of opera and art songs as a benefit for Music Matters, a nonprofit grassroots group to support music education in the Willmar Public Schools.
He speaks warmly of the strength of the local music programs and the supportive local audience.
"I've felt that kind of support musically since I started taking music lessons in Willmar as a kid," he said. "That's huge. I wouldn't be here if it was not for those people."