I had the opportunity to sit down with conductor, Joseph A. Hodge this week and learn more about his feelings on The Tender Land and the experience so far.
Rachel - I imagine you've conducted many pieces by Aaron Copland in your career! Can you remember the first piece you conducted by him?
Joseph - The first piece by Copland that I ever conducted was Appalachian Spring, the chamber orchestra arrangement for 13 instruments—interestingly enough, the same exact orchestration we’re using for The Tender Land. I performed it on my final recital during the last year of my undergraduate studies.
Rachel - What attracts you to Copland's music?
Joseph - Copland is considered by many to be father of the “American sound.” I personally believe the “American sound” incorporates many more composers, but I have always been drawn to the simplicity and beauty of Copland’s music. Copland once said, “Please don’t sentimentalize my music. It’s already sentimental enough!” And it’s true; if performed correctly, his music doesn’t need anything “extra”—it speaks for itself.
Rachel - Let's talk about the Tender Land! What do you love about this opera?
Joseph - There are so many things to talk about here. First, I love that it’s set in the rural country. Coming from the hills of Virginia, the open intervals of Copland’s music remind me of the expansive countryside where I grew up. It’s a story about everyday people—it’s very relatable. And the music reflects those characters, from the folk-like dancing of the townspeople to the sweeping love duets of Martin and Laurie.
Rachel - What is your favorite musical moment in this opera?
Joseph - Well, most people in the audience will come away with having two favorites: Laurie’s song (“Once I thought I’d never grow tall as this fence”) and the Promise of Living, the big quintet that ends Act I. Similarly to how people immediately recognize “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, they will also recognize these two biggest “hits” from The Tender Land. However, my favorite music is probably that which ends Act II, where Martin and Laurie first declare their love for each other.
Rachel - What's it like working with Niki Mallach and Source Interpreting? Has this production changed your appreciation of the deaf and their relationship to music?
Joseph - The most interesting aspect of this production by far is our collaboration with the American School for the Deaf. Niki Mallach, a 16-year-old student at ASD, will be performing the role of Beth. I am largely in charge of cuing her during the opera—when to sign her lines, to walk to a different part of the stage, etc—because it has to line up with music. What we’re finding is that she is such a natural and has been able to rely on me less and less with each rehearsal. She is one of the fastest learners and most expressive people I’ve ever encountered!
Working with the interpretive team has been such an eye-opening experience—it’s so interesting to observe their creative process. Many lines in the opera don’t translate well to sign language, so we’ve had lots of conversations about the underlying meaning of the text so they can choose how best to communicate it. They’ve also been helping other members of the cast to communicate with Beth in the show.
This experience has definitely enhanced my appreciation of the deaf community. Even though they can’t hear the music, Niki and the interpretive team completely understand the emotional connection, and the fluid motion of their signing is art in and of itself. I won’t spoil it for you, but by the end of the opera you’ll be in tears!
Rachel - Why do you think opera should be made accessible?
Joseph - Opera is so powerful because it combines elements of both music and drama, and it can help raise questions about society and challenge social norms. The Tender Land is about complex characters and how they make difficult decisions, and that’s something to which everyone can relate. I hope that everyone will come see this opera, because no matter who you are or what your background is, you’ll undoubtedly find something in it that resonates with you.