Berkeley Opera Takes on The Tender Land

Ken Bullock on April 3, 2010

The Tender Land resonates much more with us now than it did in the 50’s,” said Jonathan Khuner, Berkeley Opera’s musical director, of the company’s next production, April 10-18, in its new home at the El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater. “It’s intimate, not filled with the big themes, just about people deciding what to do with their lives. It puts a glass on that, with Copland’s sophisticated, hovering harmonies, rather than a big drive, a clash.”

Aaron Copland’s two-act opera, dealing with the arrival of a couple of itinerant workers on a Midwest, Depression-era farm on the eve of harvest and high school graduation, and the family tensions that surface with their presence, will be conducted by Philip Kuttner, with stage direction by Elkhanah Pulitzer. The cast consists of Malin Fritz, Amy Foote, Lee Stewart, Paul Murray, Paul Cheak, Michael P. Mendelsohn, Alexis Lane Jensen, Wayne Wong, and Arie Singer.

Amy Foote as Laurie
Photo by Ching Chang

The Tender Land was inspired by Walker Evans’ photographs and James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Originally commissioned by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein and developed for the NBC Television Opera Workshop, it was rejected by the network, later receiving its premiere (in 1954) at the New York City Opera, conducted by Thomas Schippers and directed by Jerome Robbins.

Poorly received at the time — “People didn’t understand it then,” commented Khuner; “they expected something more dramatic, like a detective movie” — the opera was later reworked, and both performed and recorded as a chamber opera in a version with the composer’s approval. “I can’t say it’s been a wild hit,” Copland said of its earlier history, on NPR in 1980. Declaring it intended for “the lyric theater,” he described the opera as expressing “a warm and personal feeling, rather than a big dramatic number for the operatic stage.”

Listen to the Music

Copland, typed as the composer of Americana — a role he clearly wished to fulfill as a modern, not nostalgic, artist — associated with Popular Front figures in the 1930s while working with the Group Theater, and supported Communist Party USA and Henry Wallace’s Progressive President tickets in 1936 and 1948. He was investigated by the FBI, even blacklisted and interrogated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn, though his career was not substantially affected by the stigma. “He didn’t pretend to be what he wasn’t,” commented Khuner. “Left-leaning, Jewish, a homosexual ... an outsider. The Tender Land is about liberation. So it’s important to Berkeley, [to] what Berkeley has been.”

Khuner mentioned the poster for the performance, also pointed out by Marian Kohlstedt of the Berkeley Opera Board, who characterized it as a figure of a young woman, “trudging with a suitcase in hand towards the light.” It contains a rectangle of color at the horizon, as if one were “searching for something brighter: the other side of the Depression, besides the Grapes of Wrath’s grimness. Kind of Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz!”

“Dorothy’s a prototype or mirror for Laurie,” the daughter graduating from high school in The Tender Land, said Pulitzer, the production’s director, “though she leaves, not staying at home. It’s a bold and dangerous move she makes at the end. Developing the set, I wanted a space the imagination could fill, where it could have more freedom: the outline of a shed, the porch, spaces between boards, a single picket for the fence, just the trunk of a tree ... a sketch, like the sepia and black-and-white photographs The Tender Land was inspired by, with imagination and color coming into the story with the moments of hope, like The Wizard of Oz. I referenced the John Ford movie of The Grapes of Wrath to the cast for the way people looked, moved, danced.”

Pulitzer spoke of the characters, and of the reputed influence of Vedanta, the Hindu-derived theosophic philosophy that Copland’s friend and companion, the dancer Erick Johns, brought to both libretto and book. “It’s not ‘Laurie is Shiva,’” said Pulitzer, “no special mythology, but becoming more universal by the time it reaches us, in the power of nature, the cycles of the harvest ... especially in the Promise of Living section, suspended oddly outside the rest — like ‘The sun is rising’ in [Wagner’s opera] Tristan — real time stops, goes eternal, on the eve of a joyous celebration. The rest of the story is more driven by the characters.”

Khuner commented on Johns’ Vedantism: “He really believed you get ahold of life through the biggest cycles, ever-renewing, going on to the next stage. Every character in The Tender Land is stuck in a cycle — some wanting to hold on, resisting the forces that push on through the life cycles; others accepting it, going on, taking the next step. It’s very sophisticated, apparent by the end, not stated in so many words.”

Khuner related the work to Berkeley Opera’s programming for the current season. “Copland’s opera ties in with the American experience of getting back to the land, becoming part of a more peaceful universe around us. [Mozart’s] Don Giovanni is about the archetypal individualist, shaking his fist at the universe: the outsider who gets punished. [Wagner’s] The Ring shows the balance of nature disturbed by greed, restored by love to universal harmony.”

Following Berkeley Opera’s objective, the season’s three operas “are music from all different eras” — Baroque/Classical, Romantic, modern and contemporary. The programming, he declared, “stays away from the large Romantic idea of opera. Even The Legend of the Ring is something more personal, intimate theater, which can be performed in our new home better than in the big opera houses.

“Copland’s piece was deeply felt: his own very personal expression. He used the same instrumentation as his original ballets, like Appalachian Spring. It toured the farm belts — and the farmers loved it, saying it showed their story.

“Our production features robust, not Wagnerian voices, to portray a wide range of characters. We’re trying to capitalize on our strengths: a community of great talent, both young, developing singers and mature artists. The Tender Land is very direct — and we want to give the direct opera experience, not the Romantic preoccupation with what can be done athletically with the voice.”

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