Westmont College Music will offer two fully-staged performances of Aaron Copland‘s 20th century American opera “The Tender Land” (1954) at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 28, and 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 30, in the Center Stage Theater in Paseo Nuevo Mall.

The opera score will be under the direction of Professor Michael Shasberger, while the stage direction will be the responsibility of Westmont alumna Christina Farris Jensen (she directed the last year’s video presentation of Donizetti‘s “The Elixir of Love.”

A Walker Evans image from ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.’

A Walker Evans image from ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.’ (Walker Evans)

The cast includes junior tenor Sibongakonkhe Msibi, an international student from Swaziland, who earned a fellowship to the Music Academy of the West’s 75th anniversary Summer School and Festival in 2022. Also in the cast are Joy Sturges, Emma Daniel, Abbie Carter, Nathan Carlin, Isaac Siebelink, and Brianna Campbell.

According to Maestro Shasberger, “This personal, poignant coming-of-age story still resonates today. The themes include redemption, community and faith, as Midwestern farmers strive to honor their family and accept changes in the midst of challenging times.”

Also, Shasberger said, “We’re delighted to work with Christina again and benefit from her connection to the college and her passion for opera.”

It seems that, in the 1950s, American composers began to make serious attempts to get their operas into the standard repertory.

Copland was first of the mark, with “The Tender Land.” Then, in 1956 came “The Ballad of Baby Doe” by Douglas Moore, with libretto by John Latouche; and, in 1958, we got Samuel Barber‘s “Vanessa” is an American opera in three (originally four) acts by Barber, opus 32, with a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti.

Of the three, “Baby Doe” had the greatest initial success, and still maintains a toe-hold in the world’s opera houses, though Copland’s work has been steadily gaining ground, gaining an audience, especially since the composer allowed Murry Sidlin to streamline the score for a 1987 production in New Haven that ran for 50 performances.

“The Tender Land” was inspired by, though not based upon, Copland’s reading of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1941) with its intense, highly-charged text by James Agee, and its searing photos by Walker Evans, which gives an astonishingly clear picture of the lives of Southern tenant farmers during the Great Depression (1929-41).

Agee and Evans were sent to Alabama by Fortune Magazine in 1936, to do a report on the sharecroppers there. They never filed their story with Fortune, but five years later, like a miracle, came “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” The libretto is credited to “Horace Everett,” whose real name was Erik Johns.

Tickets to “The Tender Land” are $15 for general admission, $10 for seniors or military, and they can be purchased at the Center Stage box office, www.centerstagetheater.org.

Visit the Center Stage website to view the latest COVID-19 requirements.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at gerald.carpenter@gmail.com. The opinions expressed are his own.