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Tricky business, this thing called opera

In 1954 Aaron Copland, one of the darlings of 20th Century American music, created an opera that was damned with faint praise. Everything else Copland touched seemed to turn to gold. So was it a bad opera, or was it just bad timing? Michael Shirrefs investigates.

Artists with egalitarian ideals struggled in post-War America. The Land of the Free had rapidly turned into the Land of the Paranoid. Notions of openness looked more like potential security breaches, while middle America quickly adopted an almost military posture of suburban conformity.

For composer Aaron Copland, who’d been an active participant in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s strong policies of social conscience during the Depression and the two World Wars, the 1950s were a shock. He’d truly believed in FDR’s New Deal, and thought that culture had real power to help elevate peoples’ lives. Copland had been involved in helping to revise the American Workers’ Songbook, at a time when this was considered admirable. He adopted the thinking of the Popular Front, a movement that believed that culture should not be remote from ordinary people.

What a difference a geopolitical shift can make.

The end of World War II suddenly marked a loss of collective trust. Behaviour that was once thought of as being for the common good was now tarred with the socialist brush. Anyone speaking for ideas of equality was immediately marked as a communist agitator.


This meant that Copland, who had provided some of the most memorable musical backdrops to the emergence of a modern American identity, now found himself as ‘a person of interest’—under FBI scrutiny and subsequently called before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was hunting down anything that smelled even vaguely of communism.


This was the moment that Aaron Copland finally chose to write an opera. He’d composed for every other musical form—for stage, for screen, for concert hall, even for TV. Opera had eluded him, however, and that felt like a serious mistake for someone of his stature.


With funding from the Oscar Hammerstein II Foundation and a commission from the American League of Composers, Copland thought that a modern composer should create an opera for a modern medium—television. This was, after all, the golden dawn of TV, and there was a precedent. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was experimenting with ways to bring the spectacle of opera to a mass audience.

Senator Joseph McCarthy

[Image: US National Archives & Records Administration]

Copland’s friend, Gian Carlo Menotti had already created an opera called Amal and the Night Visitors, which NBC had first broadcast in 1951. It was a huge success, and became a regular Christmas feature on NBC for many years. So Copland’s instinct ought to have been correct, as it had so often been in the past.


The first problem, though, according to American musicologist Beth Levy, is that while Copland and the League of Composers felt they were in sync with the zeitgeist, there was in fact no commission from NBC, or from any other TV network.


To finish an opera and then to shop it around to TV stations is probably destined to failure,’ she says. ‘Indeed that’s what happened. It sounds like they finished the work and then no TV station wanted to make time for it.


We’ll also never know how much the networks were influenced by America’s shifting ideological sentiments, and especially by Copland’s appearance before Senator McCarthy in 1953. Copland was smart and he had a good legal team, which helped him to deflect the Senator’s constant accusations of communist allegiances. He survived these hearings, but subsequent FBI investigations found that he had lied to the committee and in 1955 he was very nearly charged with perjury.


So, in the midst of all this, Copland composes the music for his opera, The Tender Land. It was not a work full of epic drama and tragedy, as was the operatic tradition. Instead, it was a relatively gentle work that had all the qualities of a good parable or fable.


Emily Uhrlich and Caroline Vercoe in Lyric Opera’s 2014 production of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land, performed in Melbourne at Chapel Off Chapel.

The Tender Land is set in the American rural Midwest of the 1930s. It tells the tale of a young woman, Laurie Moss, about to graduate from high school. Her family, friends and neighbours are preparing to celebrate her graduation when two strangers arrive—itinerant workers. Trouble starts when the strangers are mistaken for two fugitives accused of attacking some local girls.


The problem is compounded when Laurie falls in love with one of the strangers, Martin, and they plan to run off together. It’s a fraught plan and Martin, who is quite honourable, decides that he can’t inflict his transient life on Laurie. He leaves without her and, when she discovers this, her broken heart gives way to a desire to leave on her own, and she heads off into the unknown.


The story was inspired by the iconic book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, written by James Agee, with images by Walker Evans. Evans’ images became synonymous with the tough realities of the frontier life in America. They showed sharecropping families who were just surviving the rigours of pastoral life. Copland and his librettist (and partner) Erik Johns were inspired by two of the images of a mother Allie Mae Burroughs and her daughter Lucille. They became the basis for the characters of Ma Moss and her daughter Laurie, and gave the story a solid anchor in the public imagination.


After the NBC knockback, Aaron Copland had to rethink his options. The only practical solution was to rework The Tender Land for the stage. The problem was that the original conception had anticipated the intimacy of TV and the possibilities of placing the viewer inside the drama. This was at odds with the operatic tradition of vast, hyper-real productions on massive stages.


What Copland came up with was a work for small opera companies, meant to be performed in small settings. The work’s first outing, at the New York City Opera in 1954, was not very well received, possibly because the venue was inappropriately large.


The New York Times review of that production, while respectful of Copland and his music, was damning of the libretto. It’s true that the librettist Erik Johns (who wrote under the pseudonym Horace Everett) was not a professional writer. He was a dancer and a choreographer, and in subsequent interviews Copland seemed to regret the decision to use Johns for the task.


I disagree, however. While the text is hardly a work of poetic genius, I’m hard-pressed to think of any libretto that stands out as great writing. Most libretti are quite naff by themselves. Earlier this year I attended the only full production of The Tender Land ever staged in Australia.


Listen to Michael’s full documentary: Aaron Copland and The Tender Land


It was performed by Lyric Opera of Melbourne in the perfectly sized venue of Chapel Off Chapel. The audience, cast and small orchestra were all together in the same intimate space. The text had to be modified slightly to remove some of the hokey American turns of phrase, but the production worked. The tale of love, loss and the potential missteps of xenophobia seems utterly timeless and relevant. The music is perfect Copland—both beautiful and alarming in equal measure, and the cast delivered the text with a poignancy that bordered on the heartbreaking.


Some works of art find celebrity and currency in the moment, but don’t travel well over time. Other works, fail in the moment but gain real strength and stature as time passes. The Tender Land is just such a work, and it proves that Copland’s instinct was pretty good after all.




This article was first published on the ABC RN website Saturday 11th October 2014

© 2014—Michael Shirrefs & ABC RN

Filed under: articles, music, works