Copland’s Opera, Relevant to Today’s World, Ends BSO Season

Bainbridge Symphony
Bainbridge Symphony (Photo courtesy Aberown Studio)

A common but lamentable occurrence in classical music is the disappearance or mishandling of certain composers and works. For example, Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was not in circulation at his death in 1750, and his local legacy was headed toward obscurity. It was Felix Mendelssohn in 1829 who brought Bach back to listener’s ears when he gave three performances of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” Bach’s music was subsequently published (thank goodness the manuscripts had survived!) and he became the legend he is today.

Although the comparison is not as profound, there is a degree of mishandling when it comes to Aaron Copland’s lone opera, “The Tender Land.” In 1952, Copland took a commission funded by Rodgers and Hammerstein to write an opera for television. Two years later when the opera was completed, a televised premiere failed to materialize. Instead, New York City Opera gave the premiere on April 1, 1954.

This is where the trouble for Copland’s opera began. The opera was never composed with a large, cavernous opera house in mind. It was conceptualized for a TV studio and thus a compact, intimate space. Colleges and universities were also staging operas in larger numbers, especially modern operas, and Copland had an eye on these types of productions, which also tended to be for smaller stages as well as younger singers.

Wesley Schulz
Wesley Schulz

Critics were not moved by the New York City Opera premiere, citing not only the hall but also a lackluster libretto and a sluggish narrative. There did seem to be agreement that the music is beautifully crafted.

The libretto in “The Tender Land” was written by Erik Johns, Copland’s lover at the time, and inspired by James Agee’s book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” that followed three sharecropping families in the American south. The plot of the opera is centered on Laurie, a young woman about to graduate from high school who falls in love with one of two drifters who come to her grandpa’s farm and are hired for harvest.

The drifters, Top and Martin, are falsely accused of sexually assaulting some neighbor girls from the outset of the opera, which brings immediate judgment from Laurie’s grandfather. Laurie, however, falls in love with Martin, and they make plans to elope. In the end, Martin secretly leaves town without marrying Laurie, as he doesn’t feel he can give her the life Laurie’s family wants for her. Laurie leaves town on her own in search of a new life.

One of the most important aspects of this opera is also one of its most basic: It’s a profoundly American story, set in the Midwest, and is as far removed from European grand opera as it can get. Issues raised in the opera, namely xenophobia and sexual anxiety, are incredibly relevant today with politicians arguing over immigration and bans on people from specific countries and religions.

These issues were very real to Copland, who was investigated by Joseph McCarthy while writing the opera. When the two drifters were found innocent in the opera, Copland had Johns add — in a response spoken by Grandpa — “They’re guilty all the same.”

The Bainbridge Symphony is pleased to end our season with a suite Copland assembled for orchestra that contains three of the most beloved extracts from the opera: the second act love music, the Party Scene from Laurie’s graduation party, and the moving “The Promise of Living,” which ends the first act. Also on the program is the 2017 Young Artist Competition winner, Charlotte Marckx (violin), who will perform Tchaikovsky’s towering violin concerto, plus music from the film “Lincoln” by John Williams. Come celebrate the end of the 2016-2017 season with us!


June 2 & 4: Bainbridge Symphony Orchestra presents Copland Tender Land Suite

Turning to celebrated American composers John Williams and Aaron Copland, Bainbridge Symphony Orchestra brings its monumental season to a peaceful and stunning conclusion. John Williams’ music for the Spielberg-directed film “Lincoln” reveres and mourns the late president while Copland explores socio-economic variability in his opera, “The Tender Land.”

The program also showcases Charlotte Marckx, the 2017 winner of the BSO’s annual Young Artist Concerto Competition.

Performances: Friday 7:30 p.m. and Sunday 3 p.m. (pre-concert chat Sunday 2:15 p.m.)

Tickets: $21 for adults; $18 for seniors, students, military and teachers; each youth receives free admission when accompanied by a paying adult. Call 206-842-8569 or go to