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Friday, June 13, 2014

Opera Preview: The Tender Land

Aaron Copland's American opera at Chelsea Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Aaron Copland's The Tender Land brings the American heartland to Chelsea.
Photo from
Chelsea Opera, the small company that gives its performances at St. Peter's Churg on W. 20th St. in Manhattan, concludes its 2014 spring season with Aaron Copland's The Tender Land. This is Copland's only opera, composed in 1954 and premiered at the New York City Opera in 1955. There are just two performances: on June 13 and June 14.

Chelsea music director Samuel McCoy said: "Copland (makes) use of beautiful melodic motives supported by open-chord harmonies to create an aural image of the expansiveness of rural America."

The story of The Tender Land was based on a series of photograps by Walker Evans, taken at the time of the Great Depression. The story chronicles the labors, struggles and personal triumphs of a small frontier family and the blossoming romance between Laurie, the farmer's daughter, as she comes of age and a drifter named Martin. It is in some ways an ancestor to later American operas like Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden and Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men.

Mr. McCoy said: "Copland writes sweeping lyrical lines for the voice that create a marvelous tension between the thrust of the melodic line and the spaciousness of the supporting music. It poses a thrilling challenge for the singers, the orchestra and [the conductor] to find that perfect balance between tempo and dramatic expression."

Commissioned by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein with the largesse from their string of Broadway hits, this is Copland's most important operatic score. It is also least performed and most misunderstood American operas, joining a long list of great works (Madama Butterfly, Tristan und Isolde, Carmen) that bombed on opening night.

The music for The Tender Land is some of Copland's most enchanting, incorporating idiomatic American folk music much in the same way as the composer did with Appalachian Spring. Written with a delicate score that is ideal for Chelsea's intimate church performing space, this is a late-season opportunity to catch this rare American masterpiece.

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