Published: April 7, 2016

Eklund Opera Program to Present Copland's The Tender Land, April 21-24

“Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free.” The tune of this Shaker song is likely to start playing in your head when you hear the nameAaron Copland, the American composer known for the beloved Appalachian Spring or Fanfare for the Common Man. His only full-length opera, The Tender Landhowever, is less well known.

Ironically, in its inception, it was perhaps going to be one of the best known pieces, as it was commissioned by Rodgers andHammerstein for the League of Composers’ 30th Anniversary and was to be produced as a TV opera on NBC. The network ultimately rejected the production, likely because of Copland’s problematic political position. Copland’s associations with many leftist organizations were well known, and in 1953 he was called to testify before Senator McCarthy and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations shortly after his Lincoln Portrait was pulled from the program of Eisenhower’s inauguration because of the same suspicions. Despite the opera’s rocky beginnings–critics found it dissatisfying and Copland declared it a flop– it has continued to gain popularity as time goes on.

The Tender Landpremiered in 1954, is loosely based on James Agee and Walker Evan’s photo-journalistic memoir Let Us Now Praise Famous Men about their trip through the southern states documenting sharecroppers. Erik Johns, the librettist of Tender Land and also Copland’s lover of many years, turned Agee and Walker, outsiders entering the sharecropper culture, into the characters Top and Martin, two young boys who come from the outside to an insular mid-western farm town and family and are welcomed to help bring in the harvest. The protagonist, Laurie, is about to graduate from high school. She falls in love with Martin and they plan to elope. However, after Laurie’s family accuses Martin and Top of molesting a girl in the town (despite their known innocence–the perpetrator has already been caught), Martin leaves town, abandoning Laurie. Laurie is at first shocked and distraught, but then resolutely decides to leave her family and home anyway, searching not for Martin, but for her own life. The audience is left with no resolution except that the mother turns to her younger daughter as the representation of ongoing responsibility and change in life. Maybe, at the time, audiences were not prepared for an opera without a villain or dramatic ending, whether humorous or tragic.

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Yet The Tender Land reflects the stories of so many Americans, both at the time and today. With its unique historical context, it reflected the political experience of Copland and many of his colleagues. Martin and Top, though determined to be innocent of wrongdoing are declared, “They’re guilty all the same,” indicative of Senator McCarthy’s assumption of guilt by association. The opera also begins with several iterations of the world “cold” which depict both literally and metaphorically the Cold War and the country’s political climate. The music itself quotes from at least three folk songs, “Zion’s Walls,” “Cottage by the Sea,” and “If Ya Wanna Go a Courtin.’” Folksongs, vocal music, and diatonicism were all connected with the left-wing politics of the Popular Front in the 1930s and 1940s, of which Copland was a part. One of the few moments of ensemble writing in the opera, the quintet “The Promise of Living” at the end of Act I, seems to espouse communalist ideals. However, the voices are hardly ever all together, paired off in different ways, and the storyline emphasizes the collapse of relationships rather than their solidarity. Copland’s generation’s growing disillusionment with radical politics even among critics of McCarthy-ism are seen in this opera as well.

Beyond the experience of the composer and librettist themselves, The Tender Land represents the story of many others, those whose stories are not often seen on the opera stage. Normally we expect young male characters to leave home to make their way in the world. In the 1950s, women struggling to succeed in men’s careers saw themselves depicted in Laurie’s confident independence as she sets off on her own. In the early 1990s, the opera program at the University of Minnesota staged the opera on real farms, using the reduced orchestration version produced by Murry Sidlin. People who had never seen an opera not only were introduced to the art form, but saw their own lives reflected in it. In light of Copland’s well-known homosexuality, queer audiences are able to read in Laurie’s societal difference and choice to leave a repressive home for an open life, familiar elements of the gay experience. If we cannot find resonance with any of those stories, we in Colorado can at the very least relate to the musical depiction of the American West: Copland’s wide-intervals and open chords, just like the wide open spaces.

Experience the story for yourself in CU’s Eklund Opera Program production April 21-24. Tickets available at cupresents.org or at 303-492-8008.

Post by Melanie Shaffer, Provost’s Fellow in the Libraries

Images courtesy of the Eklund Opera Program