Rochester theater artists prepare ‘Tender Land’ opera in Iowa

May 7, 2019

Artistic talent from Rochester has been traveling south lately. But it has nothing to do with escaping the cold weather.

Instead, costume designer Marann Faget and lighting designer Denise Ruemping are assisting director Carla Thelen Hanson with an upcoming production of the opera “The Tender Land,” May 10-11 at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. All three women live in the Rochester area, and Hanson is a full-time instructor of voice and opera in the Luther music department.

“I have always loved this particular opera because of its American themes,” Hanson said.

“The Tender Land,” by Aaron Copland, is set in the Great Depression. But the issues it addresses are relevant today, Hanson said.

“Not to over-politicize, but this speaks about two foreigners that come into a small town, and the farm family for whom they start to work. Most of the townspeople are very leery of these people,” she said.

“This is Midwestern life, who we are welcoming, but also skeptical of new people,” Hanson said.

In addition, she said, “The music is so lush and beautiful.”

Copland, of course, had an ability to create music that sounded like America: “Appalachian Spring,” “Our Town,” “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Lincoln Portrait.”

“I love the music,” said Faget. “It’s an Americana opera. I listen to it while I’m sewing.”

Faget, who has done costumes for more than 200 shows, is creating costumes for the “Tender Land” cast of 27.

“You can’t find vintage clothes that would withstand an opera,” she said. So, the costumes are being made from scratch, and Faget is taking care to be sure they look old and worn.

While Hanson directs the student singers, Faget, Ruemping and set designer Mark Potvin have held production meetings to plan the look of the opera.

“In this show, everything is being built from the ground up,” said Ruemping. The large space of Luther’s Center for Faith and Life, she said, presents challenges not found in smaller theaters in Rochester and Mantorville, where Ruemping has worked.

“It’s a big project, but I’m excited about the challenge,” she said.

Indeed, “The Tender Land” is a major undertaking for a small, liberal arts college, but Luther’s music programs have a nationwide reputation. “I think our music program speaks for itself,” Hanson said.

She said the students in the opera were challenged to come back from Christmas break knowing their parts, ready to start rehearsing.

Hanson, who is a professional opera singer, said she also gave a brief history lesson at the start of rehearsals. “I spoke about my grandparents, who helped migrant workers all the time during the Depression,” she said. “I’ve encouraged the students to call their grandparents, so see if they have memories from that time. They’ve done quite a lot of research themselves.”

For Rochester residents who want to see the show, the commute to Iowa is not as long as might be expected, Ruemping said.

“It’s shorter than driving to the Cities,” she said. “If you’ll go to the Twin Cities for a show, Decorah is closer.”