Converse Opera Theatre will present Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land on Friday and Saturday, March 18-19 at 7:30 PM and on Sunday, March 20 at 2:30 PM in Twichell Auditorium. This is the first time the opera has been presented in Spartanburg.
Tickets, which are $19 for adults and free for students with ID and children, are available through the Twichell Auditorium Box Office at (864)596-9725 or online.
Converse Opera Theatre director Rebecca Turner and her husband, Stafford, were introduced to The Tender Land in 2005 when performing it at the Shenandoah Performs Music Festival. The couple enjoyed the experience of doing something new and liked that the work appealed to many different types of people. “Everyone loves to see classic operas like La Bohème, The Magic Flute, or Così fan tutte, but I thought something different, that offers music and a story line with broad appeal, might be interesting to the Upstate,” Rebecca Turner said.
The opera tells the story of a young girl named Laurie, who is about to graduate from high school in the 1930s in the midwestern United States, as she discovers that she wants more out of life than she previously anticipated. When her grandfather hires two workers to help with the spring harvest, one catches Laurie’s eye and sparks a love interest. The two young lovers dream of eloping, but the plans fall through and Laurie decides to strike out on her own to find her way in the world. Her family tries to dissuade her but she is determined to seek more, and the opera ends as she bids them goodbye and sets out on her journey.
Rebecca Turner sees themes in The Tender Land that in some ways parallel the transformative experience of Converse students. “This young woman is the first in her family to graduate from high school. She is from a small town and a close-knit family and never envisioned leaving her current situation, but suddenly she is forced to question whether she wants to stay. This is such a relevant issue for young women in high school and college. At Converse, we help young women become independent thinkers as they consider their life path. This woman does not yet know what journey her life will take, but she knows that she wants something more – a theme that seemed like a great connection to Converse.”
Turner was also drawn to the fact that the opera was written by an American composer and will be performed in English. “Singing in a foreign language is an important component of vocal training at Converse,” she said, “but performing in English helps students learn to connect to their characters while communicating with the audience, which is an important part of learning to be stage savvy.”
Creating a fully staged opera production is an undertaking that draws upon the talents of faculty and students across the campus community. Rebecca and Stafford Turner work collaboratively on the production – she as producer and he as stage director and set designer/constructor. “It is often difficult for married couples to work closely together, but for us it functions really well. We come home at the end of the day and work out our plans for the production. Additionally, we bring different, but complimentary, strengths to the process. When Stafford listens to music, he sees it like a movie in his head and easily develops character and blocking concepts. In addition to my production tasks, I help him work with performers on character development and communicating the story,” she said.
The Department of Theatre and Dance lends support with lighting and stage management. Theatre professor Brent Glenn has designed lighting for all of Turner’s opera productions in Twichell Auditorium, but this time turned over the task to student Heather Mallory, a senior from Greer, SC. “Brent believed Heather was ready to take on this significant leadership role, and she was thrilled. The experience is an incredible one for her,” said Turner.
The cast consists of primarily undergraduate and graduate students in the Petrie School of Music, with most of the female roles being double cast to offer experience to as many students as possible. Audiences will also enjoy seeing a local community face as Roland Smith, who completed music degrees at Converse in the 1970s and has been involved in Spartanburg’s church, school and community music scene for more than 40 years, sings the role of the grandfather.
Turner sees the production as an opportunity to introduce the Spartanburg community to the incredible level of talent coming from across the globe to study music at Converse. For example, the double cast role of Laurie’s mother, “Ma Moss,” is performed by senior Marjorie Polchow of Mandeville, LA, and by first-year graduate student Áine Mulvey of Dublin, Ireland. Mulvey worked with Turner in masterclasses in Ireland before enrolling at Converse. She has already performed extensively abroad, on BBC radio, and has recorded CDs. “Áine was so committed to studying at Converse that she rented out her house in Ireland, packed her things and came to Spartanburg,” said Turner. “Áine is not only a wonderful singer and performer, but also an exceptional woman. Often in the arts, production time is short and one does not get to know their students and colleagues well, but that is not the case at Converse. It has been such a blessing to get to know and work with many exceptional performers. Seeing how they come together and care for one another is extremely inspirational.”
Although music from The Tender Land is not well known, audiences will recognize the distinctly “American” sound of Copland’s composition style. “Aaron Copland is the quintessential American composer and we often overlook that when we think of opera composers. We automatically think of European composers,” said Turner. “I think it is important for American audiences to be exposed to music by American composers.”
Regarded as one of the most respected American classical composers of the twentieth century, Copland created innovative pieces with broad audience appeal by incorporating popular forms such as jazz and folk into his compositions. The “Hoedown” theme from his ballet, Rodeo, is now one of the best-known compositions by any American composer, having been used in numerous movies and on television, including the “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” ad campaign. Also well-known are several of Copland’s famous film scores, including Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940) and The Heiress (1949).
In the early 1940s, Copland produced two important works intended as national morale boosters. Fanfare for the Common Man became the opener for many Democratic National Conventions and a wide range of other events. The second work, Lincoln Portrait, is often performed at national holiday celebrations.
“I think our audience will be very pleasantly surprised by this opera,” said Turner. “The story connects on so many levels – the characters are all people we know in our lives, and the music is wonderful. Many people know Aaron Copland but are not familiar with his operatic works. When they hear this music, they will recognize it as Copland. They may not know this opera, but they will come away feeling like they know the story. And they may even feel like having a steak for dinner!”