Aaron Copland occupies a special place in the canon of American music. Known during his life as the “dean of American composers,” Copland wrote a large number of accessible — even populist — works. Many of his ballets incorporate American folk songs and are set in the heartland. The popular “Appalachian Spring” prominently uses the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts” and tells the story of a pioneer family; “Rodeo” and “Billy The Kid” are both ballets about cowboys in the wild west. Copland’s lesser-known opera “The Tender Land” epitomizes all of Copland’s favorite tropes, almost to the point of self-parody; it takes place in the Midwest in the 1930s, and even includes a hoedown. By embracing “The Tender Land’s” kitschy Americana, the Opera Theater of Yale College brought out the work’s Copland-esque nature in their stellar production.
Completed in 1954, “The Tender Land” premiered at the New York City Opera to largely negative reviews. Copland later wrote, “I was not sorry to have legitimate reason to leave town after the premier of ‘The Tender Land.’” Modern critics, however, believe the work’s original critical reception may have been a function of mismatched expectations. “The Tender Land” is scored with a small orchestra, describes the lives of farmers and is sung in colloquial English — rendering it almost a different genre from the classic Romantic operas of Verdi and Wagner. Copland originally composed the work for NBC to air on television; he intended for the singers to be shown close up, in a more intimate manner. Last weekend’s production conformed with Copland’s original wishes, and in so doing, proved “The Tender Land” to be an intimate, gentle and moving opera.
I attended last Sunday’s matinee in the Underbrook amidst a sold-out, but still fittingly intimate, crowd. The choice of venue was perfect; we were close enough to the singers to see their expressions, a far cry from most towering opera venues. Tucked away in a corner sat the production’s chamber orchestra, conducted by Ian Niederhoffer ’19. Besides his responsibilities as OTYC’s music director, Niederhoffer conducts a number of other ensembles on campus including the Yale Symphony Orchestra. Here, he expertly juggled direction of the relatively tiny ensemble — that played with a beautifully clear tone — and of the decently-sized cast. The orchestra navigated a difficult score; as in Copland’s other staged works, it closely mirrors the content of the libretto, such as when the singers urge someone to bring a fiddle, and the violins launch into a jig. Similar to “Appalachian Spring,” the orchestra was anchored by piano but otherwise kept to a skeletal cast of instruments, lending the score a clean and modern sound.
The opera itself is an idyllic retrospective, telling the story of young Laurie Moss — an excellent Isobel Anthony ’20 — as she graduates from high school and falls in love. Set in a “little house on the prairie” in the 1930s, “The Tender Land” is the culmination of Copland’s Americana spirit, connecting the inner struggles of its characters with the crises of a struggling nation. The Moss farm seems like an Eden at first — Laurie’s sister Beth exclaims, “Have you ever seen grass that green?” — but characters such as the mailman, Mr. Splinters, soon begin to sing of their own aging and slowing. Criminals in town have captured and harmed several young girls. The farm itself seems to be getting smaller
For Laurie — under the watchful eye of her strict grandfather, Charlie Littlewood ’19 — the limitless plain is more of a prison, out of which she longs to break free. As she tells her mother in a moment of fury, “How could you [understand] when you’ve never had your own life?”
The strength of the production lay in its excellent character portrayal and singing style. Anthony, starring as Laurie Moss, performed with a gorgeous tone, which was not overwrought with the heavy vibrato of many operatic sopranos. Even without projected supertitles, her dialogue was perfectly intelligible. Her grandfather, sung by Littlewood in a fantastically resonant baritone, added a rich foundation to their harmonies.
The plot begins to accelerate with the arrival of Top and Martin, itinerant farm hands straight out of a John Steinbeck novel. (Copland, as a matter of fact, wrote the score for the film adaptation of “Of Mice and Men.”) Dennis Brookner ’19 and Zachary Lee ’21 made a superb, and superbly funny, duo as they sang of their insatiable appetites. Top and Martin describe their sprawling migration across all the cities Laurie yearns to visit: “We’re from the big north: the great sprawling cities. … We’re from the side south, the grassy plains, the lazy towns with their low rolling valleys and sleepy sun.” They represent a generation of transient workers who settle wherever their labor is needed.
Indeed, the connection of labor and livelihood is central to the opera’s most famous ensemble: “The promise of living, with hope and thanksgiving, is born of our loving, our friends and our labor.” The farmers, Laurie and Ma Moss — a stern but loving Lucine Musaelian ’20 — filled the theater with their close harmony.
Martin and Laurie soon fall in love and make plans to elope after being caught by Grandpa Moss. Martin changes his mind, however, and leaves Laurie in the early morning. Heartbroken, she packs her bags and escapes the farm in pursuit of Martin. The opera ends as it began, with her sister dancing. Her dance, along with the hoedown in the second act, was choreographed with appropriately gentle character by the talented Gabrielle Niederhoffer ’22.
The fine details of the production deserve particular praise. In most of the scenes, the characters were backed by oh-so-slowly shifting projections of the prairie sky, moon and gorgeous sunset, designed by Camilla Tassi DRA ’19. The sparse set managed to include a two-story porch, designed by Oliver Orr ’19. The production was overseen by the careful direction of Amanda Vosburgh ’19 and Raphaël Laden-Guindon ’19.
“The Tender Land” was a remarkable triumph for OTYC, a student-run organization. A professional opera critic who attended the show remarked, “I can’t believe they’re undergrads!” If anything, the show was only enhanced by its intimate setting and reduced orchestra. I only wish I could have seen it again, to more fully appreciate the gentle details of the production.
Isaiah Schrader | firstname.lastname@example.org .