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Chelsea Opera to Present 60th Anniversary Production of Aaron Copland's 'The Tender Land'

By Jon Sobel j.sobel@classicalite.com on Jun 02, 2014 08:24 AM EDT

Sixty years ago New York City Opera premiered Aaron Copland's "folk opera" The Tender Land. To commemorate the anniversary, on June 13 - 14 New York City's Chelsea Opera, led by newly appointed Music Director and Principal Conductor Samuel McCoy, will present a chamber version of the work that Murry Sidlin created in 1987 in a staged production with chamber orchestra.

Set in the rural Midwest in the 1930s, the opera is not only folk-inspired but incorporates a few folk songs. "One of the things I love about this opera," says McCoy, "is the way Copland creates an image of the expansiveness of rural America with his use of beautiful melodic motives and open harmonies." That will come as no surprise to those familiar with the composer through his concert and ballet works such as Appalachian Spring and Rodeo.

Walker Evans's Depression-era photographs helped inspire the creation of The Tender Land. Upon seeing one particular dust bowl-era photograph, a famous one of a young woman in front of a shack holding a child, Copland is said to have told librettist Eric Johns: "There's our opera." Though the family drama is set in the depression, it references the McCarthy hearings of the Cold War era that Copland had had personal experience with.

On its New York City Opera premiere in 1954, the opera was not well received. Thomas Schippers conducted, Jerome Robbins directed, and the cast featured a young Norman Treigle, but critics were underwhelmed with a work that may have suffered from a schizophrenia resulting from its having originally been intended for a much smaller venue: the television screen.

Copland and Johns later made revisions, and there have been numerous productions and several recorded versions of both the opera and an orchestral suite. The closing chorus of Act 1, "The promise of living," has become a popular piece in choral concerts.

Conductor Murry Sidlin created the chamber version for a 1987 production at Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut. He has always loved the work, he says. "It's great Americana. Not only is its story very strong and its text is beautifully stated, but I think musically it is one of his great works…Copland is still our American composer-in-chief in many ways, and so it's impossible to ignore it when it's such a beautiful work. I'm very very pleased that I had a little hand in giving it a push along, because it deserves it."

The cast includes soprano Joanie Brittingham as Laurie, tenor Chad Kranak as Martin, mezzo-soprano Leonarda Priore as Ma Moss, baritone Peter Kendall Clark as Top, and bass Steven Fredericks as Grandpa Moss. Stage direction is by Lynne Hayden-Findlay. The story symbolizes the spirit of the American dream," says Lynne Hayden-Findlay, who says of Aaron Copland's longest work, "The universal themes of community, isolation, and intolerance of those different from ourselves apply to us in today's world as much as the original setting."

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TagsAaron Copland, American composers, The Tender Land, Chelsea Opera, Opera, Jerome Robbins

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