Aaron Copland's folk opera The Tender Land is a quintessential story of the American heartland. It's also laced with jabs at the McCarthy era, which made initial audiences gasp. And it’s full of soaring Copland melodies like “The Promise of Living.” The Tender Land premiered 60 years ago at New York City Opera, directed by Jerome Robbins, with Thomas Schippers conducting. In June, Chelsea Opera mounted a production to cap off its tenth anniversary season.
So why wasn't this opera, by the dean of American composers, an instant hit? And why didn’t it become an instant staple of the repertoire? Murry Sidlin encountered The Tender Land while he was a resident conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s and Copland came to conduct the opera's suite. According to Sidlin, the work had a rough premiere, got poor reviews and never found its footing (Copland also pitted a relatively small vocal ensemble against enormous instrumental forces, which made it sound like “Albert Herring meets Die Walküre").
Sidlin was brash enough to tell Copland that he thought he could improve on the piece, and with the composer's blessing, he set about creating a chamber orchestration. That version, which premiered in 1987, has now become the standard.
Listen above to a 1959 WQXR broadcast of the The Tender Land and get a brief primer on the opera in the three audio clips below.
Murry Sidlin on the story of The Tender Land:
McCarthy-era references in the opera:
On why the opera didn't catch on after its premiere...and how Sidlin discovered it decades later:
The Chelsea Opera Chamber Orchestra performance will take place Friday at 7 pm and Saturday at 4 pm at St. Peter’s Church in Chelsea (346 West 20th Street). Details at ChelseaOpera.org.
Archival audio courtesy of NYPR Archives.