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The Faces Behind “The Tender Land”

On Monday evening, the Glimmerglass Opera Guild held the first installment of the annual “Talking Opera” series at Christ Church in Cooperstown. The free series is presented each spring and includes educational seminars that delve into the upcoming Festival productions.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

About 70 people arrived to hear the first seminar offered by Dr. Fiona M. Dejardin, Professor of Art History at Hartwick College. Dejardin’s teaching at Hartwick centers on 19th and 20th Century Art, history of photography and print, women and art and more. She was the perfect person to discuss the inspiration for Aaron Copland’s second opera, The Tender Land, which was ultimately inspired by Let us Now Praise Famous Men, by writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a mostly documentary-style book that explores the lives of three sharecropper families in the South during the 1930s.

Dejardin led the audience through Copland’s thought process in discerning the subject matter for his only full-length opera, and we learned that there were initial thoughts of using Erskine Caldwell’s novel Tragic Ground. Actually, “Stomp Your Foot Upon The Floor” from Act II of The Tender Land was drafted for his original concept. Dejardin played this song for the audience and then remarked, “If you didn’t know this was The Tender Land, you would probably still know it was Copland.”

But it was the photographs in the beginning of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which only sold 1,000 copies when it was initially published, from which librettist Erik Johns took his cue. In fact, Dejardin said Johns did not actually read the book, but merely looked at the photographs of the Southern tenant farmers and their living spaces.

Lucille Buroughs

Lucille Buroughs

Photo historian Dejardin displayed the photographs of the people who inspired the characters in The Tender Land – Allie Mae Burroughs (Ma Moss) and Lucille Burroughs (Laurie).

She also discussed the differences between Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and The Tender Land. While both take place in the 1930s, The Tender Land takes place in the Midwest as opposed to the South, and Laurie is much older than the character’s initial inspiration – 10-year-old Lucille Burroughs.

These are just a few of the interesting and insightful comments Dejardin expressed during her hour-long exploration of The Tender Land and its manifestation. The audience was thrilled with what they had learned about the American opera, which will open July 10.

Allie Mae Burroughs

Allie Mae Burroughs

“Dr. Fiona Dejardin’s presentation was a superb glimpse into the background of Aaron Copland’s opera The Tender Land. The talk touched on several areas of particular interest to me personally – photography, rare books, architecture, and, of course, opera,” said Guild President Ed Brodzinsky. “What makes this so fascinating to me is how so much history and art has come together in this work – the music of Aaron Copland, the libretto of Erik Johns, the photography of Walker Evans, the writing of James Agee – and how all of that is used to interpret a period in American history in such a real way.”

The “Talking Opera” series continues May 17 at 7 p.m., when General & Artistic Director Michael MacLeod will discuss Handel, Mozart, and the Early Music Movement.

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