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Aaron Copland and The Tender Land

a radio feature produced by Michael Shirrefs



The 1950s turned out to be a tricky time for Aaron Copland, the master of Americana, to create his first major opera. In a period of mass-neuroses typified by Senator McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunts, Copland found himself less sure of his standing as a darling of the music world.

When Copland composed The Tender Land in 1953, an opera that he expected would be broadcast on television across the country, he was unprepared for the knock-back from NBC.


The Tender Land was finally reworked for the stage, but it retains many features that betray its original conception for the small screen. It’s a gentle rural Midwest story which Copland and his librettist Erik Johns based on the iconic Depression-era images of Walker Evans. The tale is a parable of xenophobia, lost innocence and passionate restlessness, in which a girl falls in love and leaves home on the eve of her graduation.


The first full production of The Tender Land in Australia was staged earlier this year by Melbourne’s Lyric Opera. The production showed that this simple tale has real power and currency. Moreover it’s a little-known and underrated work that highlights what an extraordinary composer Aaron Copland really was, and what a good instinct he had for articulating the American psyche.




Soprano Emily Uhlrich as Laurie Mos in the
Lyric Opera of Melbourne production of The Tender Land.
[© Henry Choo, 2014]

Listen to the program here …

Into The Music141011.1605: Aaron Copland and The Tender Land

First broadcast on Into The Music, ABC RN, on 11-10-2014



John Kachoyan—Theatre Director, based in Melbourne

Pat Miller—Conductor and Musical Director for Lyric Opera of Melbourne

Beth E. Levy—Associate Professor of Music at the University of California, Davis

Rob Hansen—Musicologist based in Sydney

Emily Uhlrich—Melbourne-based soprano

Henry Choo—Melbourne-based tenor



Title—Frontier Figures: American Music and the Mythology of the American West

Author—Beth E. Levy

Publisher—University of California Press, 2012



Title—Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families

Author—James Agee & Walker Evans

Publisher—Violette Editions, UK, 2001 (first published in 1941)




Title—Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland during the Depression and War

Author—Elizabeth B. Crist

Publisher—Oxford University Press, 2005



Further Information

Lyric Opera of Melbourne

James Agee Films  (The full unedited interview with Allie Mae Burroughs is available via this website)



Producer—Michael Shirrefs

Sound Engineers—Matthew Crawford & Brendan O’Neill

Reader—Scott Stephens


© 2014—Michael Shirrefs & ABC RN