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The Tender Land [A Copland]

The Tender Land is an opera with music by Aaron Copland  (1900-1990) and libretto by Horace Everett, a pseudonym for Erik Johns. The opera tells of a farm family in the Midwest of the United States. Copland was inspired to write this opera after viewing the Depression-era photographs of Walker Evans and reading James Agee‘s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He wrote the work between 1952 and 1954 for the NBC Television Opera Workshop, with the intention of its being presented on television. However, the television producers rejected the opera. Eventually, the work had its premiere on April 1, 1954 at the New York City Opera, with Thomas Schippers as the conductor, Jerome Robbins as the director, and a cast including the young Norman Treigle.

The opera was poorly received at its premiere. Contemporary criticism commented on the weaknesses of the opera’s characters and the storyline. Later analysis by Christopher Patton stated that one underlying cause of the opera’s failure at the premiere was the contrast between writing for the intimate medium of television, the originally intended medium of the work, versus the more public and larger-scale setting of an opera house. An orchestral suite based on the opera was later compiled by Copland in 1958. Copland and Johns later made revisions to the opera.

¤  Synopsis

The setting is the 1930s in the midwestern United States, at the time of the spring harvest and also of high school graduation.

• Act I

Laurie, the high-school senior daughter of the Moss family, is on the brink of graduating high school. At the start of the opera, Beth, Laurie’s sister, is dancing by herself, and Ma Moss, Laurie and Beth’s mother, is sewing. The postman, Mr. Splinters, delivers a package with Laurie’s graduation dress. He also brings gossip about a neighbour’s daughter being frightened by two strangers to the area. Ma Moss and Grandpa Moss are worried about this. Two itinerant workers, Top and Martin, arrive on the scene. After initial suspicion, Grandpa Moss agrees to hire Top and Martin to help out with the harvest. Laurie and Martin meet, and feel sympathy for each other. Top asks for Martin’s help later in getting Grandpa Moss drunk at the party that night.

•  Act II

The party to celebrate Laurie’s graduation is going on. Everyone has eaten well, and Laurie acknowledges the guests’ well wishes to her. The dance begins. Ma Moss thinks that Top and Martin are the two strangers reported to be causing trouble in the area, and tells Mr. Splinters, who goes to tell the local sheriff. As the dance proceeds, Grandpa Moss becomes more drunk. Laurie and Martin are now in love, and they kiss at one moment. Grandpa Moss sees this and becomes angry. Top tells Martin that they should leave, but the sheriff arrives with the news that the two strangers causing the local disturbances have been caught. Even though Top and Martin have been proven innocent, Grandpa Moss says that they have to leave in the morning.

Later that night, Laurie and Martin dream of eloping. However, Martin changes his mind, with the counsel of Top in the background advising that such a situation would cause great trouble for them all. During the night, while Laurie is packing, Top and Martin secretly leave. Laurie is left alone, but then suddenly resolves to leave home and make her own way in the world. Ma Moss and Beth try to change Laurie’s mind, but she is determined to move on. Ma Moss accepts this eventually. The opera ends as Laurie leaves, with Beth dancing by herself as she did at the beginning.

====
♥  Laurie’s aria ↓  Love duet  [Scene 3]

“Once I thought I’d never grow tall as this fence.

Time dragged heavy and slow.

But April came and August went before I knew just what they meant,

And little by little I grew,

And as I grew, I came to know how fast the time could go.

Once I thought I’d never go outside this fence.

This space was plenty for me,

But I walked down the road one day, and just what happened I can’t say.

But little by little it came to be:

That line between the earth and sky came beckoning to me.

Now the time has grown so short; the world has grown so wide.”

. . . end of Act 1 – Scene 5: Quintet ↓ ‘The Promise Of Living’

The Promise of Living  with hope and thanksgiving  
Is born of our loving  our friends and our labor.
The promise of growing  with faith and with knowing
Is born of our sharing  our love with our neighbor.
The promise of loving – The promise of growing
Is born of our singing  in joy and thanksgiving.
 
For many a year I’ve know these field
And know all the work that makes them yield.
Are you ready to lend a hand?
We’re ready to work, we’re ready to lend a hand.
By working together we’ll bring in the harvest,
the blessings of harvest.
We plow plant each row with seeds of grain,
And Providence sends us the sun and the rain.
By lending a arm
Bring out the blessings of harvest.
Give thanks there was sunshine,
Give thanks there was rain,
Give thanks e have hands
To deliver the grain.
O let us be joyful,
O let us be grateful to the Lord
For his blessing.
The promise of living  –  The promise of growing
The promise of ending  –  Is labor and sharing and loving.

(Horace Everett)

◊  ACT 2  ⇓  Scene 1

The family and guests are seated round a large rough table with a cloth and supper dishes on it. Ma tries to encourage another helping around.

TOP – Not for me Missus Moss. I’ve already had three helpings.

MRS. JENKS – Did you see him put the food away? He must have hid it somewhere.

She looks under his chair.

TOP – Where I hid it you’ll never find it.

Everyone laughs

MISS JENKS – How many boardin’ houses have gone bankrupt `cause of you two?

TOP counting on his fingers

Let’s see: One, Two, Three, Four.

MARTIN – Five boardin’ houses and two jails.

ALL – Tall tales, tall tales, five boardin’ houses and two jails.

Grandpa pours out a round of drinks.

GRANDPA – Try makin’ peace with some of my wine. Finest wine anywhere, berry wine.

MR. JENKS – Let’s drink to a good spring harvest!

GRANDPA – Here now Mister Jenks, harvests come and go. Some are good,

others not so good, but they come and go like spring and winter weather.

Girls come and go. Some are good, others not so good. They come and go too.

But there’s one that’s a good one, and she is nice as spring and clean as winter

the first of our whole family that’s ever graduated and that’s what I’m drinkin’ to tonight, Mister Jenks.

MR. JENKS – To Laurie then.

All but Laurie stand for the toast.

FAMILY, GUESTS – Laurie, Laurie, Laurie to Laurie, Laurie Moss!

Laurie steps forward revealing her new dress. The guests reseat themselves.

LAURIE – Thank you, thank you all.

This whole year it seemed the end-point of my life was graduation.

That’s what my Ma and Grandpa had dreamed of, what I had dreamed of.

What came after? None could tell me, no one knew for sure.

But it’s queer, this moment of my life, the celebration,

the moment each of us has watched for and dreamed of, it passes by so quickly.

The closer tomorrow comes, the more we wonder what day after tomorrow may be.

The closer I feel to our land, the more I wonder what those other lands are like.

The more I want to wear the dress, the more it doesn’t seem to be a part of me.

She hesitates.

Maybe I say it all wrong. I’m not sure what I say, but anyway, thank you, thank you all.

She starts to sit down…

GRANDPA – Ah Laurie, you are a puzzle but such a pretty puzzle to your old Grandpa.

..instead she goes to him.

MA – She’s just nervous Pa.

GRANDPA – Never disappoint me, will you Laurie?

LAURIE – I’ll try not Grandpa.

Grandpa gives her a kiss.

MA – We’ve been at this table long enough. I’ll wager not one of you has got the hustle left to show us what dancin’ is.

Guests move tables and chairs back to the corner and begin to limber up.

TOP – Dancin’s not my line but we’ll show you what drinkin’ is, won’t we Mister Moss?

Everyone laughs except for Ma.   Top pulls Martin aside.

Remember what I told you.

You have a dance while I start with the ole man, then you take him over.

He looks at Laurie.

Gee, she’s a pretty thing.

Ma has moved closer to overhear.

MARTIN – Take it easy Top. Don’t lose us our jobs.

to himself

She is a pretty thing.

1st MAN – Stomp your boot upon the floor.

1st MAN, 2nd MAN – Throw the windows open.

MARTIN, 1st MAN, 2nd MAN, MR. JENKS – Take a breath of fresh June air,

and dance around the room  . . .  and dance around the room.

Everyone joins in the dance except Top and Grandpa.

ALL – Stomp your foot upon the floor.

Throw the windows open.

Take a breath a fresh June air,

and dance around the room, and dance around the room.

The air is free, the night is warm,

the music’s here and here’s my home.

WOMEN – Men must labor to be happy,

ploughing fields and planting rows.

But ladies love a life that’s easy,

churning butter, milking cows.

Churning butter, milking cows.

Gathering eggs…

MEN — …feeding sows.

WOMEN – Mending, cooking, cleaning, ironing. Raising families, families.

ALL – Raising families, families.

MEN – Ladies love their fine amusement, putting patches in a quilt,

but men prefer to bend their shoulder to something that will stand when built.

Dancing ladies, making matches, playing games…

WOMEN — …singing snatches.

MEN – Romping, frisking, winking, whistling.

Raising families, families.

ALL – Raising families, families.

Stomp your foot upon the floor,

throw the windows open,

take a breath of fresh June air

and dance around the room, dance around the room.

The air is free, the night is warm,

the music’s here, and here’s my home.

Stomp your foot upon the floor,

throw the windows open

take a breath of fresh June air,

and dance around the room, and dance around the room.

Stomp your foot. Stomp your foot. Stomp your foot . . .

Scene 2

The couples begin a different dance. Ma takes Mr. Splinters to one side.

MA – Mister Splinters, you may think I’m crazy but I have a funny feelin’. Come with me a minute.

MR. SPLINTERS – How’s that Missus Moss?

MA – A funny feelin’ somethin’ strange is goin’ on.

Them two men you talked about before,

then these two men show up like this so soon…

Have you ever seen them `round here before?

MR. SPLINTERS – Not me. Why Missus Moss, you really think so?

MA – I have a feelin’. Things they said. Things I heard. The sheriff could clear up my mind.

MR. SPLINTERS – Won’t hurt for me to bring the Sheriff round for a few questions. I’ll go right now. You rest easy.

MA – Drive fast Mister Splinters…

MR. SPLINTERS – Might be, might be…

MA — … so they won’t have time to miss you.

Mr. Splinters leaves.

So nice they seem, yet I fear it is them.

The chances that we take, have I the right to make an accusation just on feeling?

I hope I’m wrong.

Scene 3

Ma rejoins the party. Martin approaches her.

MARTIN – O there you are, Missus Moss. I wanted to have a dance with you.

GRANDPAbeginning to show the effects of the wine

Where’s Splinters, where is he? I wanted him to tell one o’ those tales he tells.

TOP – If it’s stories you want, I know a few myself.

GRANDPA – Well go ahead then… go ahead.

TOP – Oh, I was goin’ a courtin’ and I knew just where to go,

just down younder, just down below.

The old folks gone and the children all at home,

and the girls all mad with their hair not combed,

and the girls all mad with their hair not combed.

When the supper comes on and they asked me to eat,

they called on me to carve up the meat,

one old knife and one old fork,

I sawed about an hour and I couldn’t make a mark,

yes I sawed about an hour and I couldn’t make a mark.

One of the girls says `Wait, Mister, wait’,

I just kept a-sawin’ till I got it on the plate.

Just kept a-sawin’ till I got it on the floor,

then up with my foot and kick it out of door,

yes up with my foot and kick it out of door.

In comes the old man with a double barrelled gun.

One of the girls says `Run, Mister, run’,

but I stood my ground just as brave as any bear

and I tangled my fingers in the old man’s hair,

yes I tangled my fingers in the old man’s hair.

GRANDPAnow quite drunk

That story true?

TOP – If you want to go a courtin’, I’ll tell you how to dress one old coat and that’ll be the best.

GRANDPA – That really happen?

MA – Some truth in every story.

TOP – dum, dum, dum, dum, du, du, dum,

and the girls all mad with their hair not combed.

MRS. SPLINTERS – C’mon Grandpa, let’s you and me show these young folk

what dancin’s made of. C’mon Grandpa, let’s go.

She manages with the help of others to get him onto the floor.

TOPaside to Martin

Why’s Missus Moss actin’ so odd like? Why did she look that way?

MARTIN – You notice it now?

TOP – Her eyes got a knowin’ look in `em. Like once that judge looked.

Mrs. Splinters and Grandpa are now dancing awkwardly about the floor to the amusement of the rest of the party.

LAURIE – Lift your feet, Grandpa!

TOP – Maybe he needs another drink o’ wine!

GRANDPA – We’ll take a cup of this sweet wine and dance around the room.

MRS. SPLINTERS – Whew! that’s enough for us. Lor help us… I guess I ain’t so young.

They are assisted to their chairs. The other couples begin another dance.

MARTINdancing with Laurie

You dance real well.

LAURIE – Mother taught me. Once, all her steps were like dancing.

MARTIN – Like yours are now?

LAURIE – Do they dance way off and end off dancing? Isn’t there a place where dancing never stops?

MARTIN – It always stops.

The dancing stops.

LAURIE – If there is such a place, I want to find it.

The other dancers have stopped and have gathered around Top who seems to be telling another story.

MARTIN – The world seems still tonight.

Martin takes her hand and they go to the porch. At the bottom of the steps he kisses her tenderly.

LAURIE – O Martin, I should say something.

She falls into his arms crying.

MARTIN – Quiet… quiet…

Tomorrow you’ll be graduated, and like your Ma says, you won’t be nervous any more.

Laurie… you know, Laurie… I’m getting’ tired of travellin’ through, my shoes are wearin’ thin.

I’m getting’ tired of wand’rin’, wand’rin’, not caring where I’ve been.

I’d like a stay in a place of my own and see a seedling grow.

I want to come to know special skies, special rain and snow.

A man must take a handful of earth and work it for his own.

a handful of earth and a handful of seed, but how can he do it alone?

I’d like to have a wife in my arms, I’d like to take her hand,

and holding tight, know it was strong to lift our heads and sing our song,

and when the day’s end came along to walk out on the land, to walk out on the land.

I want you, are you with me? Take my hand.

O Laurie are you ready for settlin’ in with me?

Do you feel in love the way I do?

LAURIE – In love? In love? Yes, yes, I do love you.

You came and made me feel in love. I feel so many many things Martin.

Tomorrow after graduation perhaps I’ll know…

∇  «Stomp your foot» ↓

Berkeley Opera production. Conducted by Philip Kuttner, directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, choreographed by Jacqueline Burgess.

Stomp your foot up on the floor.
Throw the windows open,
Take a breath of fresh June air, and dance around the room.
The air is free, the night is warm,
The music’s here, and here’s my home.
Men must labor to be happy,
Plowing fields and planting rows.
But ladies love a life that’s easy:
Churning butter, milking cows,
Gathering eggs, feeding sows.
Mending, cooking, cleaning, ironing, raising families.
Ladies love their fine amusement,
Putting patches on a quilt,
But men prefer to bend their shoulder
To something that will stand when built.
Dancing ladies, making matches,
Playing games, singing snatches.
Romping, frisking, winking, whistling, raising families.
Stomp your foot up on the floor.
Throw the windows open,
Take a breath of fresh June air, and dance around the room.
The air is free, the night is warm,
The music’s here, and here’s my home.
Φ   Final aria ⇓

MA – All thinking is done, and all plans laid;

all dreams were made for graduation day.

What love and care we put into each thought,

each plan, each making, all ended in a day.

Beth, having watched Laurie go, comes over to her mother and takes her hand as if to console her. Ma looks down at Beth and seems to see her as if for the first time.

But ends don’t end when we have thought them ended.

They seem to lend a brightness, a strange brightness to days,

to graduation days still out of sight.

They seem to bless where we thought blessing ended,

to pray, where we thought prayers could not reach.

And in that time where we don’t know the coming and the going,

where even you and I are living…

This love and care we put into each thought, each plan,

each making is just beginning, beginning.

She embraces Beth, brushes her head with her hand, ties on her apron and goes slowly into the house. Beth watches her disappear. She goes over to the gate and looks down the road. She begins to dance as in the beginning.

⇑  Photographs by Walker Evans  

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