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Opera Workshop brings Copland’s ‘Tender Land’ to life March 18, 20

The brilliant student voices of MTSU’s Opera Workshop will bring Depression-era America to musical life Friday and Sunday, March 18 and 20, in special performances of composer Aaron Copland’s classic opera “The Tender Land.”

MTSU Arts logoPublic tickets are $10 per person for the MTSU Arts-sponsored production and free for MTSU students, faculty and staff. Curtain time is 7:30 p.m. March 18 and 3 p.m. March 20 in Hinton Hall inside MTSU’s Wright Music Building.

Tickets for both performances are available online at www.showclix.com/event/tenderland and at the door. A searchable, printable campus parking map is available at http://tinyurl.com/MTSUParkingMap.

“The Tender Land” tells the story of a 1930s farm family in the Midwest, a narrative that Copland was inspired to set to music after reading James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and seeing Walker Evans’ Depression-era photographs included in it.

Hale County, Alabama, sharecropper Frank Tengle, right, and his family sing hymns in their Sunday best in this 1935 photo, "Sunday Singing," by Walker Evans that was included in James Agee's book "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." Composer Aaron Copland was inspired to write his opera "The Tender Land," which will be presented March 18 and 20 at MTSU, after reading Agee's book and seeing Evans' photos. (Photo by Walker Evans/Library of Congress)

Hale County, Alabama, sharecropper Frank Tengle, right, and his family sing hymns in their Sunday best in this 1935 photo, “Sunday Singing,” by Walker Evans that was included in James Agee’s book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Composer Aaron Copland was inspired to write his opera “The Tender Land,” which will be presented March 18 and 20 at MTSU, after reading Agee’s book and seeing Evans’ photos. (Photo by Walker Evans/Library of Congress)

He composed the work between 1952 and 1954 for the NBC Television Opera Workshop, but the producers rejected it for TV. The New York City Opera finally premiered the work in 1954. MTSU’s production is conductor Murry Sidlin’s 1985 revival version, which reorchestrates Copland’s original composition into a two-act opera with a smaller chamber orchestra.

Young Laurie, who’s the first in her family to complete high school, leads the 10-member cast of “The Tender Land”. The setting is the 24 hours before her graduation day, when the spring harvest and a family party bring guests, strangers and young love.

The production also features a chamber orchestra comprising 11 MTSU students and a high-school cellist who’s a private student with an MTSU School of Music professor. MTSU senior art major Mika Mollenkopf of Nashville designed the “Tender Land” set, and the university’s theatre department helped with costumes.

“It’s a very difficult piece of music to learn,” explained Dr. H. Stephen Smith, the MTSU vocal professor who also serves as director of the MTSU Opera Workshop. “If you have talented students who are willing to put the effort and work into preparing the roles, then it can be something that’s really accessible to people. There’s a connection that people make to it.”

Along with the first-act closer “The Promise of Living,” which is probably the best-known piece from “The Tender Land,” Smith said the Sidlin reorchestration also includes two old-time American songs, “Long Time Ago” and “Zion’s Walls.”

Professor H. Stephen Smith

H. Stephen Smith

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland

“We’re hoping people will recognize those,” Smith said. “It makes people a little more comfortable when they hear things they’ve heard before.”

“The Tender Land” was the subject of a special lecture last fall at MTSU on its origins, reception and interpretation as well as Copland’s run-in with U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy during its composition.

Dr. Joseph Morgan, professor of musicology at MTSU, said then that Copland’s music “is often considered the prototype of the American sound in classical music” with works like “Appalachian Spring,” “Billy the Kid” and “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

The student artists in the MTSU Opera Workshop present fully staged, professional-caliber performances of renowned operas for the university community. Some of the ensemble’s recent productions include “The Merry Widow,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Marriage of Figaro,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Sweeney Todd.”

You can listen to Smith discuss the opera and the upcoming performances in a podcast from the Feb. 29 edition of “MTSU On the Record,” MTSU’s weekly radio program, below. You also can get a preview of the music with a performance of “The Promise of Living” at the 2015 Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts Large Ensemble Concert in Hinton Hall below.

For more information, please contact Smith at h.stephen.smith@mtsu.edu or 615-898-2504.

— Gina E. Fann (gina.fann@mtsu.edu)

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