A celebration of the family farm, and a desire to get the hell away from the family farm. Those two sentiments have coexisted in much of this country for, well, much of its history. I’ve seen it in my own family: Growing up, my grandfather and great-uncles regaled me with their stories of growing up on the family farm in Indiana, which to them symbolized all that was pure and good about America. Which seemed convincing enough, until I realized that all of them, soon as they were old enough, had concocted some scheme to avoid being stuck on that farm. One went to college, one joined the army, and one moved to another state. Farming may be the most honest form of work, but it’s also, lest we forget, really hard and not so enjoyable work.
The Tender Land, Aaron Copland’s 1952 opera, is about as all-American as one can get. It’s a coming-of-age tale set on a farm in an unnamed Midwestern state during the Depression—a made-for-TV opera, no less, from the Leave It to Beaver era. All that’s missing is a Statue of Liberty holding some freedom fries and an assault rifle. You can forgive yourself for not knowing Copland wrote an opera, since this is his only full length one (the other, 1936’s The Second Hurricane, was more of a high school play), and it doesn’t get staged much. This may be because it’s too small for large opera companies to bother with, as the In Series—a small opera company which chose this to kick off its “Made in America” theme season—maintains. Or it may be because it’s kind of boring.
It’s true, relatively little happens in the three acts, during which a couple of itinerant laborers show up at a family farm (Act I), work at the farm (Act II), and then leave the farm (Act III). And that the central conflict for the main character—a teenager named Laurie who’s uncertain if she’s happy being a cloistered farm girl or not—isn’t much of a conflict. There’s a reason you’ve probably heard of Appalachian Spring and not The Tender Land. Copland had an ear for chamber music—the two works have pretty much the same instrumentation—but less of a sense of drama. NBC, for whom he and librettist Erik Johns wrote this opera, canned it before it could air.
Still, it’s boring in the most charming manner. Copland’s melodies, while not as memorable as in Appalachian Spring, are pretty and engaging, and he even throws in a square dance in the middle. The In Series’ conductor, Stanley Thurston, ably leads a nine-piece strings-and-woodwinds ensemble through the score with only occasional timing issues with the singers. The singing, too, is quite nice, particularly the female leads: Melissa Jean Chávez, a sparkling soprano, as Laurie, and mezzo Elizabeth Mondragon as her mom, who embodies a believable balance of hope and exasperation as the mother of a teenager.
It is, ultimately, a compelling production of a not-so-compelling opera, in which the In Series’ performers elevate the opera’s best features above its deficiencies. The Tender Land works not so much when it’s presenting an idyllic view of rural America, but when it’s exploring the dynamics of parenting a kid who you’re proud of but is also a brat. If life on the farm seems slow, that’s kind of the point, as Copland’s music—unhurried, unpretentious, folksy-as-hell—suggests.
As The Tender Land hints toward the end, this idea of the small family farm as the true spirit of America has always been something of a mirage, going back to the man who conjured it up. Thomas Jefferson may have celebrated the ideal of the hardworking yeoman farmer, but he was no yeoman himself, and of course he had plenty of slaves to do the hard work for him. Today, farmers make up only 2 percent of the population, and the U.S. looks a lot more like what Jefferson’s rival, Hamilton, had in mind: Centrally governed, industrial, cosmopolitan.
There’s a reason why Hamilton’s vision won out, but also a reason why Jefferson’s still resonates, which explains how we can live in a largely urban country and still have things like farm subsidies and a Department of Agriculture. If the In Series really wanted to do a Made in America season, it would stick to the multilingual and multicultural fare that it often presents, for a truly American opera would look more like Columbia Heights than The Tender Land.
The production repeats Saturday, October 24 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, October 25 at 2:30 p.m. at Gala Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. $22 – $45.
Photo by Angelisa Gillyard.