Though he essayed any number of musical genres with remarkable results -- chamber music, symphonies, ballets -- Aaron Copland only rarely ventured into the realm of opera in the 50-plus years of his compositional career. Copland's first such foray, the rarely heard "school opera" The Second Hurricane (1936), is of relatively little musical interest. It wasn't until the 1950s, in fact, that Copland made his first and only important contribution to the repertory with his two-act opera (revised from three acts) The Tender Land, completed in 1954.
One of the last works Copland wrote wholly in his characteristically lyrical "American" style (epitomized by works from the previous decade like Appalachian Spring and the Symphony No. 3), The Tender Land dramatizes a story that is well complemented by the spaciousness and elegant simplicity of Copland's music. Inspired by photographs in James Agee and Walker Evans' timeless account of Depression-era America, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Copland and librettist Horace Everett fashioned a drama centered around a farm girl on the verge of womanhood. On the eve of her graduation from high school, Laurie Moss is faced with life-defining choices regarding love, family ties, and independence. The theme of outsiders -- groundlessly accused of wrongdoing -- invading the peaceful world of rural America mirrors certain contemporaneous social concerns, not the least of which was the witch hunt for Communists under the direction of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Copland himself had been called to testify at the notorious congressional hearings.
The Tender Land underwent much revision both before and after its initial production at the New York City Opera on April 1, 1954. Though the work has never attained the popularity of other American operas of the same period like Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956) or Carlisle Floyd's Susannah (1955), it enjoyed something of a renaissance in the 1990s with numerous productions and the first-ever recording of the entire work.