Copland’s ‘Tender Land’: The In Series’ latest musical surprise

Neglected, originally made-for-TV American opera gets rare production this month, as DC’s In Series presents chamber version of Copland's "Tender Land" at the GALA.

Aaron Copland's "The Tender Land." The cast gathers to celebrate Laurie's high school graduation. (Credit: TimeLine Photos)

WASHINGTON, Oct. 21, 2015 – Within the past few years, Washington’s always-interesting In Series has created a special musical niche they’ve come to call “pocket opera.” This small company has made a tradition out of presenting chamber versions of both traditional operas—often humorously “updated” for contemporary audiences and sung in English translations—as well as creative productions of intriguing full-length and shorter operas that, for whatever reason, have been spurned or neglected in the performing arts world.

Which brings us to the In Series’ current compellingly interesting pocket opera production, a chamber version of American composer Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land.” It’s an oddly modest, moderate length work that looks backward and forward on the then-current American scene, blending traditional classical music with folksy music and motifs while also introducing moments of strangely disquieting dissonance. The In Series is performing the chamber version of the work, with its final pair of performances wrapping up this weekend at the GALA.

“Tender Land” has an interesting backstory, which at least partially explains its relative absence from the stage. Copland began composing the work in 1952 at the request of the NBC Television Opera Workshop.

While it’s perhaps hard to imagine in 2015, in those very early days of TV, live performances of classic and contemporary drama, classical music and opera were fairly regular occurrences on network television, a still-novel medium that was straining to fit available air time with programming that curious viewers would watch; and in those years, these live theatrical and musical productions tended to draw good-sized audiences, particularly from regions of the country that rarely had a chance to see and hear live performances of such traditional and modern classics.

NBC’s choice of Aaron Copland to compose a brand new, made-for-TV opera was to some extent a no-brainer. At that point in his career, he was regarded as the dean of American composers, and his prestige value was considerable. He had begun his composing career in the 1920s essentially as a modernist, although his music was at times influenced by other traditions as well.

But by the mid-1930s, he began to attract more attention when—possibly influenced in part by the CPUSA’s “Popular Front” ideas—he shifted toward writing music that, while based on classical and modernist ideas, was also grounded in American folk music traditions. This shift almost immediately led him to pen some of his most famous compositions. These included the catchy, short tone poem, “El Salón México” (1936); the “Billy the Kid” ballet (1938); and what has, along with Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” become one of the most beloved of all American classical music compositions, his “Fanfare for the Common Man” (1942).

Such works stood out for their uniquely “American” style, a style Copland more or less invented. His most famous works (as opposed to some of his more ambitious and risky music) involve folk music or folksy motifs, bridged with a deceptively simple “open harmony” that’s easily heard in performance but somewhat harder to describe. It’s a unique, highly individualistic sound that’s often emulated even today by composers who create music for movie soundtracks.

It’s this style of music that Copland generally deployed in “Tender Land,” a folksy folk opera clearly geared toward the virtual living-room performances space then dictated by the black-and-white small screen TVs that were a staple of family viewing as the decade of the 1950s progressed.

But Copland—originally a modernist—was also experimenting at this time with introducing the elements of atonality that had been the stock and trade of academic composers since the Second Viennese School of composition began its long march through the academic system. Such music has never connected with American audiences, but in it, Copland clearly and astutely observed that the essential, grating dissonances that were a hallmark of such music could be incorporated into a composition when the music needed to reflect tension or disquiet.

Perhaps for this reason, Copland carefully and masterfully incorporated these elements into his made-for-TV opera to reflect its subtly rising tensions. And that’s in many ways what makes this otherwise folksy work into a real opera, as the orchestra weaves this kind of dissonance underneath a soloist’s more traditional melody line, which has long been a classic operatic technique.

Unfortunately for Copland, “The Tender Land” never actually made it as a televised opera. After he’d completed it in 1954, NBC decided they wouldn’t go ahead with it. Given the careful and cautious censorship that was a strong element of early TV programming, perhaps the opera’s fairly frank exploration of sexuality gave NBC pause. It’s also possible that politics came into play. Copland, like many artists at the time, was a target of the McCarthy hearings, and NBC may have had second thoughts about promoting a new Copland composition on the network.

In any event, the opera eventually had a premiere performance staged by the late, lamented New York City Opera on April 1, 1954. Unfortunately, the production flopped, and over the years following, the work never really gained traction.

Some have attributed its failure to its fairly simplistic plot and relatively two-dimensional characters—both of whom, paradoxically enough, might have made it quite a success on early television, as it was intended to be broadcast to a wide, diverse and not necessarily elite audience.

Others have blamed the opera’s lack of success on the fact that its small-scale intentions and design simply can’t work in a traditional opera house. It’s simply too “up close and personal” for an audience accustomed to the epic sweep of grand opera.

This latter criticism strikes close to home. “Tender Land” has no pretensions whatsoever to being a “grand opera” in any sense. It was meant to be heard and seen in America’s living rooms by individuals and families who rarely if ever made it into the concert hall or opera house and who would appreciate a down-to-earth yet aspirational production they could appreciate, understand and relate to.

Which brings us back to this In Series production. Because of the Series’ more intimate and personal approach to “pocket opera,” and because it mounts its productions in small performance spaces like GALA, “Tender Land” seems almost tailor-made for an In Series production.

The Series clearly stretched a bit to hire a small, cohesive chamber orchestra for this production, giving the music a fuller, richer sound while not overwhelming the performers or the space. The production is further enhanced by the sterling work of a fine cast of local singers who have embraced both the music and their deceptively simple characters with enthusiasm.

Set in the 1930s, “The Tender Land” is a perhaps slightly-too-simple tale of a small, rural American family that’s excitedly preparing to celebrate the high school graduation of eldest daughter Laurie Moss (Melissa Chavez), the very first in her extended family to achieve this milestone. Younger sister Beth (Arya Balian) is buzzing with enthusiasm, as is Laurie’s mother, “Ma” Moss (Elizabeth Mondragon).

The male head of household role is ably if cantankerously filled by Grandpa Moss (Scott Sedar). He’s an essentially stalwart, kind and well-meaning older gent. But he’s also the kind of old-fashioned family patriarch that would give any 2015 radical feminist an instant coronary, given his narrow view of a young woman’s dreams and aspirations.

Copland’s two-act opera culminates in Laurie’s big graduation party, staged in this production as a festive picnic dinner attended by the many neighbors and friends of the family. These include a pair of drifters Grandpa has just hired, who go by the names of Top (Andrew Thomas Pardini) and Martin (Nicholas Carratura). On the surface, they seem friendly enough. But Mr. Splinters (Kenneth Derby), the postman, has alerted Ma that the police are looking for a pair of outsiders who’ve recently assaulted a young woman in the area, and he implies that she was raped.

When Grandpa eventually catches wind of this, the graduation party is dramatically and abruptly concluded. Making matters worse, Laurie has fallen in love with one of the alleged miscreants and is ready to elope, even missing her own graduation in the process. While much of this opera tilts toward a “Mayberry RFD” nostalgia, its open-ended and downbeat conclusion is anything but.

To a modern audience, this is the kind of country-folks plot that can seem hokey and atrociously out of date. Indeed, in many ways, the opera’s good but often stolid characters, particularly Grandpa, are part of an American way of life that actually once existed but that today seems an impossibility on many levels.

But to dismiss things out of hand would be to miss Copland’s—and the music’s—finer point, which is the central metaphor of Laurie’s high school graduation. Laurie indeed does graduate in this opera. But it’s not the kind of graduation that anyone in her rural town or her family is expecting.

That’s because Laurie comes to the conclusion that to fulfill her own personhood, her own ambitions—whatever they may be—she needs to get out of Dodge and strike out on her own.

Thus, while Copland’s opera looks back with some approval on the strong family bonds and traditions that were part of America’s past, he’s also looking ahead, in an oddly prescient way, perhaps toward the 1960s. It was during that decade that, for better or worse, so many of America’s children “left home” literally and figuratively, but this time in open and sometimes violent rebellion against authority.

One senses this inexorable motion in Copland’s deceptively naïve opera, and so does the In Series’ sensitive cast, in particular this production’s central characters. Melissa Chavez’ portrayal of the moody and troubled Laurie is spot on. Ms. Chavez strikes a marvelous balance between a young girl who sincerely wants to please her mother and grandfather, but one who’s also tired of having her personal boundaries set by someone else and who’s seriously contemplating that great American tradition—so well-expressed by Mark Twain’s Huck Finn—of “lighting out for the territories.”

Ms. Chavez sings sensitively and well throughout, particularly in “Laurie’s Song” (“Once I thought I’d never grow”), and “The sun is coming up” near the opera’s finale.

As Ma Moss, Elizabeth Mondragon is also impressive as an apparently conventional country mom whose surface actions conceal a woman in emotional turmoil, something she broadly hints at in her opening song/aria, “Two little bits of metal.”

As an essentially good-hearted but snappish Grandpa, Scott Sedar cleverly negotiates a personality that veers abruptly between being a kind but world-wise granddad to morphing into a distasteful character who’s fully capable of making prejudicial snap-judgments even when they’re openly refuted by the facts. Mr. Sedar puts this notion across with a brittle, often snappish singing style that helps accentuate his highly opinionated character’s quickly flashing moods.

As the two drifters, Top and Martin, Andrew Andrew Pardini and Nicholas Carratura are forthright friends, true and loyal to each other but cut out of entirely different cloth. In many ways, they’re the most fully realized characters in this opera, and in both solos and in duets, they excel in putting their characters across forcefully and believably.

Of the two—given that he’s the opera’s romantic lead—tenor Nicholas Carratura’s Martin gets some of the best music to sing in this opera. Mr. Carratura makes the most of his opportunities, nailing his central moments with a strong and steady voice underscored with marvelously clear diction and authority.

At opportune times, both the principals and the large supporting cast in this production get together for the opera’s fine and moving choral moments, most notably in “The promise of living,” Act I’s stirring and rather well-known finale. Tight, accurate and in synch with the orchestra, this may be the finest example of choral ensemble singing we’ve yet heard at an In Series production. Bravo to all.

Kudos as well to stage director Steven Scott Mazzola and music director and conductor Stanley Thurston. Mr. Mazzola’s spare direction meshed perfectly with the sometimes starkly simple outline of this opera, and better yet, he was careful not to put his soloists in poor stage positions during key solo moments. As for Maestro Thurston, he helped his chamber orchestra forces navigate Copland’s sometimes thorny score accurately and well, including putting just the right emphasis on Copland’s uniquely American scoring.

The In Series’ production of Copland’s “Tender Land” marks another welcome milestone in the In Series’ increasingly successful forays into the nooks and crannies of opera’s Never-Never Land. This is a genuine American gem that’s best served small and intimate, which is just what the In Series is all about.

If you like the music of Aaron Copland, you’ll enjoy this unique opportunity to hear it at the GALA. Two performances remain this weekend, and it’s likely to be a long time before you get a second chance to hear this one. If you find this an interesting proposition, be sure to order your tickets soon.

Rating: *** (Three out of four stars)

The In Series’ new production of Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land” will conclude this weekend with performances on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday (matinee) at 2:30 p.m. Audience Q&A available pre-show Saturday starting at 7:15 p.m.

Tickets: Available online via this link. Adults: $45; Seniors: $42; Stu/Youth: $22 Groups of 8 or more can get a 10 percent discount.

Performances will take place at GALA Hispanic Theatre, located in the Tivoli Theater building complex at 3333 14th Street, NW, in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Entrance to the theater is in the middle of the block between Park Road and Monroe Streets.

Discounted parking available in the parking garage located at Giant, located adjacent to the Tivoli building on Park Rd. (Be sure to get your ticket stamped at the theater.)

GALA is also accessible by Metro from the nearby Columbia Heights Metro Station on the Green Line.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17