‘The Tender Land’ hits close to home

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Sara Lin Yoder and Michael Hoffman in The Tender Land.
Casey A. Cass

Fiery gypsy smugglers, humpbacked court jesters, cruel tyrants, Japanese geishas and French nuns facing the guillotine — it’s a good bet that most operatic characters are outside the personal experience of the singers who portray them. But University of Colorado Boulder’s Eklund Opera Program stands that observation on its head this weekend with its production of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land.

Partly inspired by Walker Evans’s Depression-era photos of rural southern poverty, The Tender Land is the quintessential American story of Laurie, a young woman graduating from high school. Facing an uncertain future with courage, she strikes out to follow her dreams. In other words, Laurie does exactly what the opera students at CU — and many of the rest of us, for that matter — have done.

The Tender Land takes place on a 1930s Midwestern farm — the realistic CU production places it in Iowa. The night before Laurie’s graduation, two down-and-out drifters arrive at the farm asking for work. Even though they seem more than a little shady, Laurie falls in love with one of them during her graduation party. They make plans to run away, but at the last minute the drifters disappear.

Her bags already packed, Laurie makes the courageous decision to leave on her own. At the end, her mother and younger sister are left at the farm house, just as they were seen at the beginning.

Eklund Opera director Leigh Holman says she told the cast, “‘We should all be able to relate to Laurie, because the very fact that we got into this profession means that we were some kid, maybe in middle school or high school, thinking about being an opera singer.’ They all started nodding their heads. They could all relate to Laurie following her dreams.”

Laurie’s story strikes particularly close to home for Holman, who says “I grew up in a small town in the South, and I wanted to be an opera singer. I wanted to go out in the world, so I can really relate to this character.”

The parallels even extend to the opera’s conductor, CU graduate student Joshua Horsch. “He’s about to finish his (doctorate), and he’s going to go out into the world,” Holman says.

But she quickly points out that Horsch has plenty of preparation for his role as conductor. “He’s been working with (Eklund Opera music director) Nicholas Carthy for the last three or four years,” she says. “We wanted to give him this opportunity, and he’s doing a great job. I’m really proud of him.”

Horsch has racked up quite a bit of experience on his way to the Eklund Opera podium. Two years ago he was the onstage pianist in the production of Side by Side by Sondheim. At CU, he is conductor of the campus orchestra and conductor/pianist for the New Opera Workshop. Among other professional engagements, he has been conductor and pianist at the Saratoga (New York) Opera and assistant conductor for the Fort Worth Opera.

One aspect of The Tender Land Holman particularly relates to is Laurie’s strength as a character. At the beginning she sings an aria where she is afraid of the future. “Throughout the opera, she starts to gain confidence,” Holman says. “I love the fact that she deals with this at the end, and decides to go ahead and leave her fears behind.

“I find this to be a very feminist mood for Laurie, and I think that’s really advanced for the 1950s.”

Although The Tender Land is often performed by universities, it represents a real challenge. “The roles of Laurie and (the drifter) Martin are not easy,” Holman says. “For Martin, the tenor, a lot of range is involved — vocal range, and the acting range as well. And Ma Moss, Laurie’s mother, has a lot of singing to do.”

Fortunately, the singers returned from spring break well prepared. “It’s quite impressive how fast they’ve put it together,” she says. “Everything was memorized and ready to go, so we were able to start staging (right away).”

The Tender Land comes right on the heels of the Eklund Opera Program’s production of Dialogues of the Carmelites, which ends with its protagonists all walking off stage to the guillotine. After that, singers and audiences are probably ready for something less emotionally wrenching. Fortunately, Copland’s opera provides just that.

“There’s a wonderful square dance scene and a big party that’s a lot of fun,” Holman says. “The two drifters that come onto the farm are really fun. The opera’s famous (choral) piece ‘The Promise of Living’ is extremely hopeful and uplifting, so it’s a big emotional change from Carmelites.

“It’s really a joyful opera.”

On the Bill: The Tender Land — CU Eklund Opera Program. 7:30 p.m. April 21–23, 2 p.m. April 24, Music Theater, CU Imig Music Building, 18th St., Boulder. Tickets: 303-492-8008 or cupresents.org