This Friday Trinity Lyric Opera opens its second season with Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land at its new home in the Castro Valley Center for the Arts.
The Tender Land—a title taken from its love duet between a wandering laborer and a Midwestern farm girl—is aptly named. For this work is a perceptive and nostalgic look at the lives of the common man and woman at a moment in American history. Inspired by James Agee and Walker Evans’ book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a photographic record of Southern sharecroppers during the Depression, Copland and his librettist shifted the opera’s focus to a Midwestern family during the 1930s.
The opera opens with Ma Moss singing of the cares of keeping a family together with two bits of metal—her needle and thimble. Her daughter Laurie graduates the following day and she will be the first in the family to finish high school. The story centers on the conflict that Laurie’s growing up brings those who love her. For the Moss family is conservative, hard working and impoverished, filled with fears of loss and the outside world. Laurie’s need to be free is in opposition to her family’s integrity.
The Tender Land was never a huge success, and most of Copland’s statements about the opera seem apologetic. In a 1980 NPR interview he commented: “I don’t think the libretto was that fascinating from a theatrical standpoint.” The opera was meant “not for the Met but for lyric theater with more modest pretensions.”
In his autobiographical writings, Copland seems to fault the music for lack of complexity: Tender Land “is not the kind of work to be pulled apart for study of its counterpoint and harmony ... The music is very plain, with a colloquial flavor, mostly diatonic and orchestrated simply.”
Copland, who was never comfortable with the operatic form and referred to it as “la forme fatale,” missed the strengths of his own achievement—and the strengths of his librettist, his then-partner, dancer and painter Erik Johns, writing under the pseudonym of Horace Everett.
The straightforward story in which the dreaded and feared never become realized—no one dies of tuberculosis or flings herself from the rooftops—is written in American vernacular, but not without lyrical elegance:
The sun is coming up as though I’ve never seen it rise before.
The day is bright and clear.
The door I just came through has opened on a new place, a new earth.
But the libretto’s greatest virtue lies in the ease with which it allowed Copland to set the words into a continuous lyrical flow containing both his characteristic tunefulness and an orchestral expansiveness woven with subtle dynamics and harmonies. This largeness in the music reflects the original quality of Evans’ photos and brings to the opera that sense of unending time and space intrinsic to the American heartland. Johns described The Tender Land as “in the nature of an operatic tone poem.”
Copland was also able to weave the characters’ complexities into his music—from the quiet opening phrases, during which Laurie’s sister plays with her dolly and through which shimmer the long rays of sunlight on prairie life, to the dissonant moments when Laurie, having risen before dawn to escape with Martin, realizes that she must change her life on her own.
During the rehearsal on Tuesday, I saw that Trinity Lyric Opera made several excellent decisions for this production. First of all, the singers are wonderful. Marnie Breckenridge makes an exquisite Laurie, her purity of voice is ideal for the innocent girl, and her acting is superb. She is supported by equally fine singers: mezzo-soprano Valentina Ozinski as Ma Moss, tenor Wesley Rogers as Martin, baritone Brian Leerhuber as Top, and bass Kirk Eichelberger as Grandpa, among others.
Further, director Olivia Stapp has staged this opera with great sensitivity. The actors’ movements flow as naturally as the music, and her understated approach never lapses into the cute or folksy but rather imbues the opera with a kind of graciousness that respects the characters’ struggles.
But perhaps the most interesting artistic choice was the use of Evans’ photos. Projected at the sides of the stage, these beautiful black-and-white photographs not only describe the Depression-era world of the opera, they make an incisive statement about American attachment to the land. For in the faces of the beleaguered poor, what shows is not only duress but a kind of openness—a landscape of vastness that is reflected in fields of corn, a kettle, a spool of thread, and that becomes iconic in the pale blue-eyed gaze of a young boy.
Whatever Copland may have felt about his opera, this is a production worth seeing. It isn’t saturated with excessive emotions, but it is tender. And in being so it reaches into the heart in ways that we seldom have the opportunity to experience.
THE TENDER LAND
Presented by Trinity Lyric Opera at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 14; Tuesday, July 17 and Friday July 20; and at 2 p.m. Sunday July 22. Maestro John Kendall Bailey gives a talk one hour prior to each performance.
Castro Valley Center for the Arts
19501 Redwood Road, Castro Valley.
Easily accessible by freeway and BART.
$10-$40, bargain matinee seats available for Sunday matinee. www.trinitylyricopera.org.