Unconventional production combines opera with classic American musical theater

Thursday, February 23, 2006
Mike Renick entertained party guests as the drifter Top in Southeast Missouri State University's "The Tender Land." (Fred Lynch)

Conventional isn't a term that would apply to "The Tender Land" -- even though it's more than 50 years old.

The product is an American opera, which ends up being a strange mix of opera and good old American musical theater. Any uncommon and adventurous route to choose.

Southeast Missouri State University's production of the Aaron Copland work -- a huge collaboration between the departments of music and theater and dance -- tells a story that is part of American folk culture but does so through a strange vehicle. While done well, the operatic singing seems out of place at times.

The performances from the opera's singers/actors are almost universally well executed -- both in song and body language. Southeast has sunk a lot of work into this production, and that shows in the student- and community-casted production. The attention to vocal work by coaches Dr. Chris Goeke (also director), Dr. Leslie Jones and Judith Farris is apparent.

Erika Beasley delivers a strong-but-vulnerable farm matron through a powerful voice and motherly appearance as Ma Moss. Bryan Parker handles many moods well as the gruff, suspicious old Grandpa Moss.

And Mike Renick delivers some comic relief to an otherwise gravely serious story of fear and love. His drifter Top is a man motivated by base needs like sex and food, but also a jolly soul.

The story takes place on a Midwestern farm in 1933, starting the day before Laurie Moss -- played by Amanda Eades and Rachel Null on alternating nights -- is set to graduate high school. Laurie falls in love with Top's comrade Martin (Justin Moore), setting in motion an intense conflict between Laurie and Grandpa. In Wednesday night's rehearsal, Eades' voice made Laurie an emotional dynamo -- the turbulent center of this whole drama.

But at times the device used to tell the story seems unwieldy.

Copland had noble goals when he wrote "The Tender Land" according to a note by Goeke in the program. Goeke said Copland wanted to give young opera singers material they could relate to, material they wouldn't get through standard opera teaching.

But hearing a character sing things like "Damn my wife, damn my belly for getting HUN-GRY" in a country vernacular with big opera-style voice, though done well, still seems strange.

However, "The Tender Land" is a different art form, and one that should be judged in its own right. Even though the story is an American reality -- a coming-of-age story of rural people -- the atmosphere of "The Tender Land" seems more like that of a fairy tale.

The lighting, coupled with the smoky aura surrounding the darkness-shrouded orchestra, defies realism and transports viewers into another realm. This lack of realism helps offset the strangeness of hearing country folk sing opera.

"The Tender Land" takes a while to get going, but by the third act the action moves quickly and the emotion is palpable. By the time it's over, "The Tender Land" stands as another quality production, despite its inherent and surprising strangeness.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182


WANT TO GO?

* What: Aaron Copland's "The Tender Land"

* Where: Rose Theatre

* When: 8 p.m. today (Feb. 23) through Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

* Info: 651-2265

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