The opera was commissioned in 1954 to be shown on NBC television. Once Copland and librettist Erik Johns, writing as Horace Everett, finished the work, the NBC Television Opera Workshop rejected it. The subject matter was inspired by Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a searing collection of photographs taken by Walker Evans among poor white tenant farmers in Appalachia, with text by James Agee.
The Walker/Agee book originally appeared in the 1930s, but even 20 years later the network found it too hot to handle in some way — too bleak, too despairing, too realistic, perhaps. The UCSB Music Department has given it a touching and polished performance, which opened Wednesday evening and will play again Sunday afternoon in Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall.
The story centers on Laurie Moss, a young woman on a farm in the American Midwest who is about to graduate from high school. Alison Bernal sang the role on Wednesday night and will alternate with Savannah Greene in the remaining two performances.
Also heading the cast were Mark Covey and Jason Thomas as two drifters who show up at the farm, Stephanie Turner as Laurie’s mother and Keith Colclough as her overbearing grandfather. Turner has an appealing voice that adds to her interpretation of Laurie.
Benjamin Brecher directed the production, and Paul Sahuc conducted the small orchestra in the pit. The scenery and lighting design are well done, thanks to Mark Somerfield. The period costumes are by Stacie Logue, and the spirited choreography is credited to Jennifer Phillips. The stage manager is Amanda Morando.
Considering all that has transpired since the Great Depression, it’s sometimes hard to realize how different things were at that time. Young people left the family farm or the small town, looking for a better life, just as Laurie does in The Tender Land. There were drifters on the road, trying to find work or just a hot meal. Poverty was the rule, not the exception.
Why the network would refuse to show The Tender Land originally is something of a puzzle. The work is not all that political, but perhaps in the uptight 1950s, it would have been seen as more than it actually is. The university is deserving of kudos just for staging it, and this production is a credit to everyone involved.
Tickets are $15 for general admission and $7 for students, and can be purchased at the door. For more information, call 805.893.7001.