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Opera From an American Point of View

Yes, The Tender Land is an opera. But it’s not that kind of opera. The production, being put on by USF’s Opera Theatre, is sung in simple American vernacular, set in the rural Midwest and features no singing fat women to signal its finale.

Director Teresa Andrasy said that, for her, part of the appeal of The Tender Land is that it is accessible to an American audience. “I think that one of the problems that young people have with opera is that it is in a foreign language, so you automatically associate it with some kind of foreign product,” she said. “This is, of course, an American product. The fact that it’s in English just makes it so much more understandable that the immediacy of the story comes through directly.”

Written by famed American composer Aaron Copland, The Tender Land is, in essence, a coming-of-age story about a girl named Laura (played by Lisa Watson), who is trying to break out of her small-town mold.

Watson, a soprano, said that because most of her singing experience is in American musical theatre, she had no difficulty adjusting to The Tender Land.

“It’s easy music to sing,” she said. “And it’s easy for the audience to listen to, as well. This is not going to be a stuffy kind of opera.”

The tone of The Tender Land is set in the opening scene where Laura’s younger sister, Beth (played by Emily Gail Howell), prances around the stage playing with her rag doll. She swings the doll onto the posts of the white picket fence and walks him along, chattering away to the doll as if he were real. Beth is childish, playful and innocent, everything that Laura will not be by the conclusion of the drama.

Jameson Kelly and Joe Finocchiaro play the two outsiders, Martin and Top. They are simple-minded drifters, just looking for enough work to put food in their stomachs and move on to the next town. They find work from Laura’s grandfather. They find food at Laura’s graduation party. But while Top is satiating his appetite and telling tales of the traveling life, Martin is falling in love with Laura.

The Tender Land was Copland’s only opera. The piece was reportedly commissioned by NBC in 1952, but the network was dissatisfied with the result and rejected The Tender Land before production could start.

William Wiedrich, conductor for The Tender Land, said that, although NBC studios rejected the opera, there are plenty of elements in the composition that make The Tender Land work as a drama.

“You can almost hear the drama about to happen in some interlude before something happens,” he said. “And what’s really nice to do is, when Copland gives us room in the score, to keep the audience in the drama while something’s happening on stage that isn’t action. Then the eyes go to the ears, and the drama continues.”

Andrasy agreed, “Everything you do on stage is really written into the score,” she said. “It’s very clear, when you’re directing a piece like Copland’s, what he wants you to do and how he wants you to direct your players.”

Copland composed The Tender Land like many of his symphonies, in a simple, distinctly American style. The opera has a particularly rural feel even in the singing, as the performers bellow, “What choo doin’?” and “Where you goin’?”

The opera has such a relaxed, American feel to it that, at times, it seems as if the production is more of a musical than an opera.

“For this show, it’s going to be probably a little like a musical,” Watson said.

“But all the voices will be classically trained.”

Whereas traditional operas can be distinguished by the lack of speaking parts, Wiedrich said that in recent years, it has become more difficult to define the format.

“There’s a lot of blur in that these days,” he said. “Because, of course, Evita is a musical, but there’s no talking. And so you can’t honestly say that opera is a piece without talking because a lot of Mozart opera has talking in it.”

He added that one of the things that sets operas and musicals apart is how they are conceived.

“Very often these are conceived by classical symphonic composers, orchestrated like a symphony would be, sung like arias would be, all in a classical style,” he said.

Andrasy added that the vocal technique used by the performers in The Tender Land also sets it apart from musicals. Although none of the performances in this production match the wine-glass shattering, frilly stereotype of opera, Andrasy said the vocalists approach it in a distinctly operatic way.

“The use of the voice is much more down the traditional path where the acoustics are all fabricated within the vocal technique,” she said.

She added that musicals, especially those that have been written in the last 20 years, depend on artificial amplification for the performers’ voices to reach the audience. The USF opera performers, on the other hand, have no microphones and must rely on their own abilities to be heard over the orchestra. But despite the traditional approach, The Tender Land is still far from being a traditional opera.

“The music itself is very American vernacular,” said Wiedrich. “I mean, there’s hoedowns, there’s rodeo music, there’s cowboy music, and there’s beautiful love songs.”

Contact Dustin Dwyer at