The UCSB Opera Theater will present a new production of The Tender Land — music by Aaron Copland and libretto by Erik Johns, writing as Horace Everett — at 8 p.m. this Wednesday and Friday, and at 3 p.m. Sunday in Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall.
The Tender Land takes place on the Moss family farm in the Midwest, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It is the time of the spring harvest and of high school graduation. The protagonist is Laurie Moss, and the story of the opera revolves around her high school graduation party and the arrival at the farm of two drifters, Top and Martin, who are seeking work.
Benjamin Brecher will direct the stage action and Paul Sahuc the music; Mark Somerfield designed the sets and lighting, and Stacie Logue the costumes. The leading characters will be sung by Savannah Greene or Allison Bernal (“Laurie Moss”), Stephanie Turner (“Ma Moss”), Maddy Marquis (“Beth Moss”), Keith Colclough (“Grandpa Moss”), Jason Thomas or Adam Phillips (“Martin”), and Mark Covey or Daniel Tuutau (“Top”).
The Tender Land has a somewhat circuitous back story.
In 1936, Fortune Magazine sent photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee to Alabama to produce, as Agee later put it, a “photographic and verbal record of the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers.” For the writer and the photographer, it was a defining episode (if there is such a thing). Living among some of the poorest families in America as “spies” (Agee’s word) set each on the path that led him to immortality. However, as everyone with any interest in American literature now knows, while Evans took the photographs and Agee took extensive notes, the magazine articles never appeared.
What did appear, in 1941, was a book called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men — nearly 500 pages — that began with 100 black-and-white photographs that changed forever the way thoughtful Americans saw themselves, and concluded with Agee’s headlong, passionate text, combining all the best elements of poetry, social history and sermon, which pours into the reader’s heart, through a door flung open by the pictures, and becomes a permanent reservoir of collective empathy.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has tremendous influence on those who read it — never a large number — and especially among creators. Copland, who had been committed body and soul to the political activism of the 1930s, read the book early on and was overwhelmed by it. So, in the early 1950s, when Rodgers and Hammerstein commissioned Copland to write an American opera, he thought immediately of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and determined to set his opera on a Depression-era farm.
The commission was for an opera to be performed on television by the NBC Television Opera Workshop. He worked on The Tender Land from 1952 to 1954. When it was finished, the NBC producers rejected the opera. (There is nothing very political about the opera, but perhaps, in the heyday of Sen. McCarthy of Wisconsin, Copland’s activist background made the networks nervous.)
Attentive craftsman that he was, Copland had scored the work specifically for a broadcast orchestra, and he had to expand and reorchestrate it for a live theater premiere, which came April 1, 1954, at the New York City Opera, directed by Jerome Robbins and conducted by Thomas Schippers. The qualities that limited the initial success of The Tender Land — its lyricism, melodiousness, romanticism and lack of irony — are the very qualities ought to guarantee its place in the repertory, now that it has been rediscovered.
(A note about Agee: In his 46 years, James Rufus Agee — pronounced “AY-jee” — left his distinguished mark on a quite astonishing range of forms and formats. In addition to writing the ineffable Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he invented the modern profession of film reviewer with his work for Life, Time and The Nation; he wrote or co-wrote five remarkable motion pictures, including Night of the Hunter and The African Queen; his novel, A Death in the Family, was published after his death and won the Pulitzer Prize for 1958, and then, dramatized as All the Way Home by Tad Mosel, won the Pulitzer for drama in 1960; his shortest work of fiction, The Morning Watch, is a classical gem; and his prose poem, Knoxville, Summer of 1915, was turned into an extended, achingly beautiful art song in 1948, by composer Samuel Barber. Agee brings out the best in composers, the way Walt Whitman used to.)
Tickets to The Tender Land are $15 for general admission and $7 for students, and will be sold only at the door before each performance. For more information, click here or call 805.893.7001.
— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.