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THE PROMISE OF LIVING

AARON COPLAND, Brooklyn-born 120 years ago, evoked what it means to be an American—for this Thanksgiving Day 2020 and for all days. In his opera The Tender Land, Copland appeals to Midwesterners, Californians, New Yorkers, all of us, with a modest, lyrical tale of Americana. 

There is sadness at the moment, not to say irony, in that the Midwest is particularly pandemic-ravaged, at least in part because of individuality and other life choices.

What with one thing and another, I’ve been enjoying The Tender Land a lot recently. Here are tidbits gleaned from its libretto and from my usual Internet sleuthing. 

The Tender Land, music by Aaron Copland, libretto by Horace Everett (Erik Johns); soloists, chorus, and orchestra of The Plymouth Music Series Minnesota, Philip Brunelle conductor; Virgin Classics, 1990.

A Coming of Age Tale. The Moss family has a farm in the American Midwest during the 1930s. Daughter Laurie is a high-school senior ready for graduation. Beth is Laurie’s younger sister, who opens the opera by imagining her life when she grows up. 

Beth sings to her doll, “When I grow up will you take me/ To live in a big house? With a big lawn?/ I’d like a fountain and a pool./ A pool with lots of carrot-fish.”

Top and Martin arrive looking for harvest work at the farm. Grandpa reluctantly hires them, despite rumors of two strangers having caused trouble in the area. Ma Moss tells the postman Mr. Splinters about the two itinerant workers, and he informs the sheriff. 

At her graduation party that evening, Laurie and Martin are attracted to each other, much to Grandpa’s anger. The sheriff arrives, telling everyone that the two strangers have already been captured. Nevertheless, Grandpa tells Martin and Top they must leave the next morning.

During the party, Laurie and Martin fall in love, even to a dream of eloping. Later, though, Top persuades Martin not to give up their itinerant partnership, and the two men secretly leave in the night. Martin sings, “Laurie, Laurie, forgive me….” to the dark sky. 

Laurie is left alone, but decides it’s time to make her own way in the world. The family accepts this, with Ma telling Beth “This love and care we put into each thought, each plan, each making/ Is just beginning, beginning.” 

The opera ends as it began, with Beth looking down the road from the front gate.

Sister Beth. Illustration by Erik Johns. This and other images from Copland, The Tender Land, CD.

Television? Opera House? Copland wrote The Tender Land between 1952 and 1954 for the NBC Television Workshop. Alas, network producers rejected the opera. 

Aaron Copland, 1900–1990, American composer extraordinaire, known by peers and critics as the Dean of American Composers.

On April 1, 1954, the opera had its premiere at the New York City Opera, to a lukewarm reception. Michael Fleming writes in The Tender Land CD notes, “But even at City Center, the work was swallowed up, visually, psychologically, temporally. The timing, focus and scale of The Tender Land having been previously set for television, an opera-house production, however sympathetic, was bound to create unrealistic expectations…. The Tender Land was bound to seem slender when compared with the masterpieces of such an ‘honest-to-God’ operatic composer as Mozart.”

Set design by Oliver Smith for the original production of The Tender Land, 1954, New York City Opera.

The Promise of Living. The intimacy of a home CD performance may be perfect for The Tender Land.  As noted by Wikipedia, “ ‘The Promise of Living” is best known, often performed as a separate choral anthem.” 

Here’s a performance of “A Promise of Living” as performed by the Berkeley Opera, April 2010.

“The promise of living/ With hope and thanksgiving/ Is born of our loving/ Our friends and our labor.”

“The promise of growing/ With faith and with knowing/ Is born of our sharing/ Our love with our neighbor.”

“The promise of living/ The promise of growing/ Is born of our singing/ In joy of thanksgiving.” 

We have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020 

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