Aaron Copland grew up in the cramped quarters of Brooklyn, the child of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, but in his music he lit out for the territory. The architecture of city life — Deco skyscrapers and imposing Beaux-Arts museums — defined his early life, but in his music he sought sanctuary in the prairie.
Land, for the young composer learning his craft, was measured in 264-foot city blocks, the jangle of urban life ringing in his ears. But in his music the land was tender, and his musical spaces, like the vast American plains, were wide open, and a quiet ecstasy dwelled there.
Copland, whose iconic compositions like “Appalachian Spring, “A Lincoln Portrait,” “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Rodeo” came to define the American sound in mid-20th-century classical music, also wrote an opera called “The Tender Land.” The little-performed work, which premiered in 1954 — a coming-of-age story set on a prairie farm in the 1930s — gets a new life beginning this weekend at the Glimmerglass Opera in upstate Cooperstown, one of the country’s leading summer opera venues. It is the first time that Glimmerglass, which has a long tradition of performing older and newer American pieces, according to longtime Glimmerglass conductor Stewart Robertson, has staged a version of “The Tender Land.” The work is to be performed by members of Glimmerglass’ Young American Artists Program, a breeding ground for up-and-coming opera singers.
“What makes a Jewish boy from Brooklyn write a work like this, about a girl who grows up on a farm and realizes that she must leave?” asks Robertson, who has a musical Scottish lilt in his voice. “I think it’s the universality of the story — the need to find your place in the world.”
Robertson, who is returning to Glimmerglass to conduct “The Tender Land” for the first time since ending his 20-year tenure as music director in 2006, continues: “This is not your classic operatic theme. Nothing much happens. A girl growing up on the farm meets a boy. It doesn’t work out, but she realizes that she has to leave all the same. The opera is about the cycle of life; we grow up inheriting our parents’ world but realize we have to step out beyond that world. It’s about the idealism of youth.”
For New York City-based assistant conductor Zachary Schwartzman, “The Tender Land” evokes a “Middle American, heartland feeling. There are some edgy, syncopated rhythmic sections when the drama gets ratcheted up. But much of the opera is languid and pastoral, with folk-based elements.” Schwartzman points out that, like many composers, Copland moved through wide stylistic swings in his long composing career, from the Americana of “Appalachian Spring” and “The Tender Land” to much more angular, modernist compositions.
But Schwartzman says he doesn’t believe Copland is pitting urban values vs. rural, vaguely Christian ones in the opera. “I think he was much more interested in rites of passage and transitions. As the older daughter leaves the farm at the end of the opera, her mother sings, ‘Ends don’t end when we have thought them ended.’ The opera comes full circle.”
Rebecca Jo Loeb as Beth Moss, left, Lindsay Russell as Laurie Moss and Stephanie Foley Davis as Ma Moss in Glimmerglass’ "The Tender Land." Claire McAdams/Glimmerglass Opera.
In “The Tender Land,” Copland, who died in 1990, is said to have been influenced by Walker Evans’ starkly beautiful photographs of the American South contained in his book with James Agee, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Two images in particular are thought to have moved Copland, according to Robertson: one is of a mother “who looks like she hasn’t had an easy life but displays a tough resilience,” says the conductor; the other is of a young girl, “with a certain skepticism in her eye, a sense of youthful cunning that says, ‘I’ve got to get out there and do something.’ These sparked Copland’s imagination.”
Robertson, who says that Copland’s parents lived in Scotland for a few years before moving to Brooklyn (and changed the family name from Kaplan to the Scottish Copland), offered a different — and much more close-to-home — theory about the composer’s inspiration for the opera.
“A very important influence in Copland’s early years was his older sister Laurine,” Robertson says. “She went often to the Metropolitan Opera and introduced him to opera — when he was 11 the first composition he wrote was the beginnings of an opera. Laurine was the adventurous one in a family that was very conventional, and I think he identified with her.”
In “The Tender Land,” the central character, who leaves her family and the prairie behind and strikes out on her own at opera’s end, is named Laurie. “Was it a tribute to his older sister?” Robertson asks. “I don’t want to make too much of this, but it makes you think.”
Aaron Copland¹s The Tender Land" will be performed at the Glimmerglass Opera in upstate Cooperstown on July 10, 13, 19, 25 and Aug. 1, 5, 7,14, and 21. Glimmerglass is located at 7300 State Highway 80, eight miles north of Cooperstown. For tickets ($26-$126), call (607) 547-2255 or visit www.glimmerglass.com.