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Reclaiming American Music:
A Copland Opera Comes to the Farm


By Lawrence Biemiller

Red Lake Falls, Minnesota -- Swallows dart across the farm Lou Schafer grew up on -- tree to barn to house to tree, tree to shed to barn -- and the American flag that Mr. Schafer's father has put up waves and flaps against a rich blue sky. In the barn, Mr. Schafer is explaining that there's been a dairy herd on the farm since his grandfather bought it in 1941; meanwhile he unties bales of hay and pulls them apart, stopping in front of each of his 40 Holsteins to make sure she gets her fill. At the end of one row, he bends and reaches to feel the belly of a cow he says will give birth in a day or two.

In Mr. Schafer's house, a rhubarb cake that his mother brought over from next door waits under a tea towel on the big round kitchen table. On the front lawn, two technicians are hooking up speakers for this evening's rehearsal. The risers have been in place for a few days already, in a cozy semicircle facing Mr. Schafer's spacious front porch.

It's the white-painted porch -- Doric columns below, balustrade above -- that is bringing opera out County Road 13 to the Schafer farm, two miles past Red Lake Falls. The University of Minnesota's School of Music is presenting Aaron Copland's rarely heard 1954 work The Tender Land here as part of a two-week tour. Instead of trucking sets all around Minnesota and the Dakotas, the opera is being produced on the porches of seven farmhouses -- appropriately enough, since it tells the story of a high-school girl's decision to leave her family's farm. At each stop, the company is relying on a nearby town to provide a chorus, a junior-high-school girl to play the younger sister, and accommodations for nine student singers, 13 student musicians, four directors, and the two technicians -- 28 in all.

"There's something very important we want the students to get out of this," Murry Sidlin says during the cast's post-rehearsal dinner in the back room of J.P.'s Restaurant and Pizza. Mr. Sidlin is an associate professor of music at the university and a well-known orchestral conductor; in 1985 he transcribed Copland's 60-instrument opera score for the 13 instruments Copland used in the original Appalachian Spring ballet.

"The musical world in America is faltering dangerously," Mr. Sidlin says. "Musicians have to start thinking of alternatives to the major urban centers -- there's a large and very inviting audience waiting in places that are not the traditional concert centers.

"In Staples last night, some of those dairy farmers came over to me and said they were really moved by the libretto. I think Copland would be thrilled if he knew we were doing this on farms."

Later, Mr. Sidlin and the opera's director, Vern Sutton, ask their singers to perform a song from The Tender Land for their local hosts. "Orchestra, you'll have to hum your parts," Mr. Sidlin says. The song is a simple one, "The Promise of Living," that becomes a fine quintet in the opera: "The promise of living/With hope and thanksgiving/Is born of our loving/Our friends and our labor." Amid folding tables and mirrored walls and the Lions Club insignia, the students' strong young voices make Copland's song as lovely, as American, as hopeful as music can be.

The opera is a major event in Red Lake Falls, a friendly town of 1,481. The Gazette has been running articles about the preparations for weeks, and some 600 tickets have already been sold. The chorus -- mostly members of the St. Joseph's Catholic Church choir -- has been rehearsing Act II with George French, assistant professor of music at the university's campus in Crookston. Darci Delage, an eighth-grader from nearby Brooks, has been learning the younger sister's part. Space has been set aside on the farm for concessions -- a burger stand run by St. Joseph's parishioners, a stand that uses a Norwegian flatbread to make what the sellers call "Uff-da Tacos," a horse-drawn hay wagon for rides. Roger Thibert -- of Thibert Chevrolet, Buick, and RV's -- has offered a midnight-green '39 Master Delux for the postman's arrival in Act I. Mr. Schafer has rebuilt his porch stairs and hung out pots of geraniums.

So the soft rain falling the morning of the day itself disappoints. Mr. French, who has been the local organizer, remains hopeful. But Mr. Sutton, the director, is uncharacteristically quiet. He stands for some time on Mr. Schafer's porch, brushing water off the railing and talking with Linda Fisher, his assistant, about the back-up plan to move the show to the high-school gym. They decide to hold the morning blocking rehearsal at the farm anyway. "I think this is the prettiest house of the seven," Mr. Sutton says, brushing off another section of railing.

"Usually as a director you work with a set designer for the mood you want," he says. "Here we literally have to change the way we do things to make it appear like we live in this house. It's opera verite -- people walking out of the door and singing."

Adds Elizabeth Collins Smith, who sings Laurie and Mrs. Jenks on alternate nights: "The challenge is making reality look like a show."

Later in the morning the singers stop by the high-school gym to block the show yet again, just in case. "It's a two-week-long improvisational exercise," says Glen Todd, who will sing the postman tonight but also sings Martin.

"We knew the blocking would change, because every farm is different," says Amy Johnson, who alternates with Ms. Smith as Laurie and Mrs. Jenks. "The tour is really unique. We all have individual duties -- the Ma's and the Lauries are in charge of costumes, and then we help with equipment.

"The opera is really so beautiful that I don't know how anyone could not like it," she adds.

After lunch the rain tapers off. At the farm, Mr. French, Mr. Sidlin, Mr. Sutton, and Ms. Fisher confer again about the timing of a final decision as the rain resumes; Mr. French makes it clear that local residents would prefer to see the opera at the farm if rain is not actually pouring down on them. Mr. Thibert, the Chevy dealer, arrives from town with tarps to use as flooring in the orchestra tent. The milk truck arrives to empty Mr. Schafer's 600-gallon tank. "We've had hardly any rain all spring," Mr. Schafer muses, staring out at a light drizzle. "Till three weeks ago."

At 3:30 someone comes into the crowded kitchen to say the opera is being moved to the high school. Mr. French stalks out. At 6 Mr. Sutton appears, unexpectedly; Mr. French and other local people have persuaded him to move the show back to the farm. "The people said, `We don't mind,"' Mr. Sutton grins. "And the singers want to do it here even if it does rain."

Soon Red Lake Falls County sheriffs are directing a torrent of traffic, and people are carrying lawn chairs and umbrellas onto Mr. Schafer's lawn, and hamburgers are being grilled, and Mr. Thibert is teaching Mr. Todd how to use the starter pedal in the '39 Master Delux. "It's like Field of Dreams," Mr. Sidlin says, standing on the porch steps to look at the growing crowd. "If you play it, they will come."

By the time the opening notes of Mr. Copland's overture drift across the porch, more than 1,300 people are crowded onto the lawn. Darci Delage has the first lines, and within minutes the Chevy idles up to the porch steps and Mr. Todd delivers the graduation dress that sets the plot in motion. No one seems concerned about the occasional raindrop or the mist that obscures the trees beyond Mr. Schafer's alfalfa fields.

As Act II begins, the genius of presenting an opera here becomes clear. Toddlers play under the risers; 10-year-old boys appear and disappear, as 10-year-old boys will. The libretto captivates the rest of the audience -- farm girl falls in love with itinerant boy; girl's family, suspicious of strangers, sends boy away. Girl sings: "The closer I feel to our land,/The more I wonder what those other lands are like." Boy sings: "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?"

Mr. Schafer's porch lights glow yellow as darkness falls during Act III. Ms. Stevens, as Laurie, searches one of the aisles for the banished Martin; up close, the power of her voice astonishes children and grown-ups alike. Then, accompanied by a few beautiful notes from the flute, Laurie leaves the farm on the morning of her high-school graduation, and the opera ends.

The cast party is a feast of Mary Anne Schafer's meatballs, and rolls she brought over from next door in a refrigerator's crisper drawer, and crudites, and a keg of beer, and here and there a flask of whiskey. Long after midnight, when it's time to say goodbye, Mr. Schafer is discovered in the fluorescent-lighted dairy barn, where he has let three opera singers try their hands at milking. Mr. Todd, who grew up in California, reports success; Mr. Schafer is smiling broadly. It occurs that dairy farmers and opera singers are equally endangered by modernity. And it occurs that all 40 cows are awake, and staring.

PICTURES FROM THE FARM

Copyright © 1993 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published June 30, 1993.