Aaron Copland’s Misunderstood Opera

With the first performance of the ADO coming up on May 29, I thought I would write a short introductory piece to the suite that Aaron Copland extracted from his ‘Americana’ opera, The Tender Land which we are performing along with Brenton Broadstock’s Made in Heaven: Concerto For Orchestra (rev.).

I find it fascinating that this opera is not better known.  I am assured by people in the know here (opera-wise) in New York that the opera is performed with some regularity – but not by major Opera companies.  I certainly know it was performed last year in Melbourne by Lyric Opera of Melbourne because I was asked to review it for Limelight but couldn’t with a schedule conflict.  I was also interested to see it, as I wanted to look at the young Australian conductor, Pat Miller.

All that aside, the opera appears to be a bit of an enigma.  I have sat and played the work at the piano.  Like all students of the pre-eminent French composition teacher, Nadia Boulanger, there is nothing in Copland’s score that is not securely and persuasively written.  In fact, it is beautifully rendered on a small scale as it was originally intended to be heard as a television opera.

The criticism levelled at the work seems to center around the lack of vocal pyrotechnics (not, necessarily, a bad thing in itself) and the quality of the libretto by Copland’s friend, Erik Johns.  Johns’s libretto is, in my view, wholly maligned if you take into account the common and oft-realised mistake of judging language outside the era and location in which it is intended to be realised.  As Copland himself wrote, “The Tender Land was not meant to be a big dramatic opera. It was for young people to perform, and for that reason, it is rather simple in musical style and story line… I was trying to give young American singers material that they do not often get in the opera house; that is, material that would be natural for them to sing and perform… The result was closer to musical comedy than grand opera.”

In this the composer is entirely successful.  I’m not sure what this says about Opera’s lack of enthusiasm for the work that remains elusively on the fringe (actually, outer-fringe, as Opera itself has turned itself into a completely fringe product).

Originally written in two Acts the opera was subsequently; after it’s initial lukewarm response, re-cast into three Acts.  I’m not sure this is a successful solution.  The two-Act version better focuses the main subtext of the piece itself: the traumatic episode – and real-life theatre – of ‘McCarthy-ism’ in the US during the early 1950s and prior.

Required to appear before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Copland was interrogated, and traumatised, on his alleged communist leanings and support for what was known as the ‘Red Terror’. Whether Copland was or was not a Communist is still hard to determine. He never joined any political party.  His vocal support of the very poor agricultural workers in Minnesota in the 1930s (many of whom were communists) probably did little to assuage later insinuations about his political beliefs.  It’s greater impact was that Copland – like many others – would never again be tempted take a public stance on other issues as a consequence of the Senator from Wisconsin’s political witch hunts (with the exception, as to be expected, in the rise of Nazism).

The U.S.’s First Amendment would seem not to protect people as often portrayed in the movies (many actors’ careers from the period in fact were ruined by McCarthy’s improper condemnations).

The suite Copland extracted from The Tender Land is in three movements, with the second and third linked without pause. As it happens, the opera’s three Acts are sampled in reverse order. Movement one comprises the Introduction to act three and the music of the love duet for Martin and Laurie. Movement two is taken from the act two party-scene – the opera’s one really big number. Movement three adapts the quintet, “The Promise of Living“, that ends act one. This hymn-like finale, arguably the opera’s most memorable music (and often sung by choirs) is an elongated moment musically italicized by the composer.

The text, in effect, promises a world without McCarthy (and people like him) when Grandpa, Ma, Laurie, Martin, and Top sing:

The promise of ending

In right understanding

Is peace in our own hearts

And peace with our neighbor.

Copland’s personal trauma through McCarthy-ism is clearly evident in the opera itself. Not only is Grandpa Moss oddly paranoid about outsiders (“You can’t trust strangers. Bums! Dogs!”); even after his suspicions that Martin and Top have molested a neighbor prove unfounded, he sings (amazingly): “You’re guilty all the same.” Ma Moss, too, has “a funny feeling” about Martin and Top, but adds; “Have I the right to make an accusation just on feeling? I hope I’m wrong.”

The Tender Land suite, oppositely, ends with a ringing moral affirmation – versus the tenuous ending of the opera itself. Perhaps it is the composer in me – with a more contemporaneous and ambivalent view of the world – but I’m not sure the suite would have been better concluded with the same tenuousness as the opera’s final scene.

Notwithstanding, The Tender Land: Suite is a remarkable and beautiful work – and far too little performed.  At the ADO, we’re about to change that!

Kevin Purcell