The Ol' College Try

USF presents the Copland opera Tender Land

So let's say you love opera. You regularly attend the shows at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, and you've also been known to go to the Palladium when Sunstate Opera or Florida Lyric Opera or Central Florida Opera presents Figaro or Tosca or Traviata. But now you hear about a college production — Aaron Copland's The Tender Land at the University of South Florida, April 17-21. Students, you sniff — barely trained voices, crude production values, an audience of undiscriminating friends and relatives. Attending local opera can be a risky sort of sport even when professionals are involved, so why take the gamble and go to a college show? Yeah, this looks like something to pass up. ... Wait, says Theresa D'Aiuto Andrasy, director of the opera program at USF. Come to see Tender Land and you'll discover genuinely beautiful voices, lovingly made sets and costumes, and an overall commitment to first class production: "It's really important to me not only to create a valuable experience for the students, and a professional atmosphere for the students, so that when they go to their next level, they feel that what they did at the university level was like a mini-professional company; but I also want the audience, who's going to pay to come in, I want them to get as close to a professional experience as they possibly can get, with the resources that we have. I want them to see a show that looks like a real show."

To produce "real shows" — this has been Andrasy's ambition ever since she got to USF five years ago and discovered an opera program weakened by budget cuts and student distrust. The program in 1997 "had maybe an enrollment of seven students at the best," she says. Productions had virtually no sets and noticeably inappropriate costuming. "And we didn't always attract the best students to the opera program ... because they didn't really feel that they were getting experience that they wanted."

Fortunately, Andrasy says, her arrival coincided with the appointment of a new director of the School of Music, one who took a special interest in opera. Christopher Doane, says Andrasy, "developed a belief in the program and gave us some support." He helped make it possible to stage complete operas instead of excerpts only, and to "create productions that look more polished and feel more polished."

And Doane's enthusiasm was built upon by other faculty members like Tender Land conductor Dr. William Wiedrich and Theatre Department set designer Roland Guidry. Enhanced by these contributors, the opera program under Andrasy — it now has about 35 students — has staged, in part or whole, The Magic Flute, Cosi Fan Tutte, La Boheme, The Turn of the Screw, Carmen, Manon, The Secret Marriage and several other works. The productions have regularly sold out in USF's 200-seat Theater Two. Now Andrasy wants to get the word out to the larger community — and sell out the 500-seat Theater One.

But hold on a minute. Can Andrasy really be insisting that a student cast of barely-trained vocalists can provide us with real opera? She reacts immediately: "That's not really what it is, though; they're not really barely trained. Because usually I'm going to cast the better singers in these productions, singers who are older and have more experience. So that most of them have had at least five years of training."

She further explains that men's voices can't be trained until puberty anyway, "so you have the years between 19 and say 25, 26 to really start to develop the voices. The two young men who are singing the lead tenor role, one of them is in his 30s, and the other one is in his late 20s. ...

They're well trained voices, they're beautiful, the voices are, they sound like operatic voices."

Which brings us to The Tender Land, which Andrasy is directing. The story, she says, was inspired by James Agee/Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Librettist Erik Johns moved the locale from Alabama to the Midwest and came up with a parable that might have been influenced by Copland's tense appearance before Senator Joseph McCarthy. It concerns two drifters who wander into a town and are suspected — falsely — of having sexually abused a young woman.

To complicate matters, an adolescent girl falls in love with one of them; and before the opera's over she has to decide what sort of life she intends to lead as an adult. The piece was first written for television, but premiered at the New York City Opera in 1954. Negative reviews prompted Copland and Johns to revise the work, and it appeared to better notices at Tanglewood later that year and, in a further revision, at Oberlin College in '55. A version which employs a mere 13-member orchestra is the one Andrasy chose for the USF production.

Andrasy thinks there's a lot in The Tender Land to satisfy an audience: the coming-of-age theme, the spectacle, the choreography by Dance Department professor Sandra Robinson — and, of course, the music. "I know that most Americans love Appalachian Spring, love Fanfare for the Common Man, love the sound of Copland, that open American sound. That music is very much part and parcel of this experience."

So all right, if I'm not totally convinced, I'm intrigued. I'll go to see The Tender Land, I'll raise my expectations, I'll try to forget that it's a student show and I'll treat it no differently than I would were I at TBPAC or the Palladium. And if Theresa Andrasy's right, I'll have a wonderful experience....

I'm hoping she's right.

Next Year's Menu. The Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center has announced its 2002-03 Play Series, and it looks like their best ever. First comes Jobsite Theater's version of Shakespeare's bloody Titus Andronicus (Oct. 17-Nov. 3). Then it's August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson (Feb. 6-23), followed by Jobsite's take on Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane (March 27-April 13). Next is David Auburn's Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Proof (dates to be announced), and after that, Shakespeare's As You Like It, staged by the Acting Company (dates TBA).

That's a respectable season, befitting a fine regional theater — if these plays get the productions they deserve.

Watch this space.