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Bethel welcomes guest director for Copland opera production

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – An American opera that hasn't been performed on a Bethel College stage in more than 40 years is bringing a new director to campus.

The music and theater departments will present The Tender Land by Aaron Copland Friday, March 2, and Saturday, March 3, with guest director Brian Luedloff.

Luedloff is director of opera theatre at the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley, as well as artistic director for Opera Fort Collins. He has produced operas for companies all over the country.

Luedloff is currently on a year’s sabbatical from UNC, and has plans to direct operas in multiple locations. In the 2011-12 year, in addition to The Tender Land at Bethel, he has directed or will direct Lucia di Lammermoor for the Dallas Opera, Sweeney Todd for Theatre Workshop of Owensboro (Ky.) and Miss Havisham’s Fire for Maryland Opera Studio.

Luedloff came to Bethel due to his ties with President Perry White.

“We met many years ago when we were both college students doing summer theater in Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” Luedloff says. “We became good friend and were roommates briefly in Kansas City, when he came [there] to start his master’s degree and I was [still] there. We remained good friends and colleagues.”

During a past visit with Perry and Dalene White, Luedloff talked about his upcoming sabbatical, which led to a discussion about Bethel’s biennial opera.

“Perry knew that they were planning on doing an opera this year, and he put me in touch with [Vice President of Academic Affairs] Brad Born, just to explore the possibility of something I could do on my sabbatical,” Luedloff says. “The timing of it all worked out beautifully.”

After an enthusiastic reception from Born, Luedloff went to talk to Timothy Shade, assistant professor of music, and Megan Upton-Tyner, instructor of theater.

“They asked me to propose a few titles,” he says. “I think I proposed three different titles, one of them being The Tender Land. They looked at [the] relative merits and problems with each one and decided that for the program here at Bethel, the Aaron Copland opera … would be the best fit.”

Luedloff says he came to Bethel expecting “the students might not have been quite as well prepared musically or quite ready for staging” due to fewer opportunities for opera and music theater in this area. However, the preparedness, talent and willingness he found in Bethel students pleasantly surprised him.

“For a smaller institution, the amount of talent you have here is really incredible,” Luedloff says. “I’ve been so impressed with the Wind Ensemble. I’ve heard the choir, and all of the soloists in the opera. It’s a tremendous amount of talent you have here on campus.”

He adds, “It’s also very impressive to me that you have so many students across campus, in other disciplines and other programs, who participate in music, in one way or another – in choir, band or both, in orchestra and jazz. That’s really impressive to have … such a diversity of disciplines involved in the music program. We’ve had a lot of fun. I’m cautiously optimistic that it’s going to be a really terrific production.”

Luedloff hasn’t been the only one enjoying his time here and the directing the production.

“I love him. I love him, we all do,” says Allison Yoder, senior from Kalona, Iowa. “I’ve never had a director like him. You can tell he cares about everybody. He’s never been harsh or yelled at us at all. He’s like: ‘It’s rehearsal, that’s fine.’”

Yoder, who has the lead role of Laurie in The Tender Land, adds, “[It’s been good] working with a new director, who has a completely different take not only on acting, but the music, too. He’s thought through stuff so much. I can tell all the work he’s put into it, but he’s also so open to suggestions and so laid back and chill – an awesome person. It’s really fun.”

The Tender Land tells of a farm family in the Midwest, with oldest daughter Laurie ready to graduate from high school and dreaming of freedom. Aaron Copland was inspired to write the opera after viewing the Depression-era photographs of Walker Evans and reading James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” He wrote the work (with libretto by Horace Everett, a pseudonym for Erik Johns) between 1952 and 1954 for the NBC Television Opera Workshop, with the intention of its being presented on TV, but producers rejected it.

Eventually, the work premiered April 1, 1954, at the New York City Opera. Bethel first presented The Tender Land in May 1969.

In addition to Yoder as Laurie Moss, the Bethel College cast of The Tender Land includes: Julia Miller, junior from Hesston, as Ma Moss; Caroline Mayhew, sophomore from Lawrence, as Beth Moss; Andrew Voth, senior from Topeka, as Grandpa Moss; Nathan Snyder, senior from Hesston, as Martin; Aaron Tschetter, sophomore from Freeman, S.D., as Top; Will Lewis, sophomore from Newton, as Mr. Splinters; Renee Reimer, senior from Sioux Falls, S.D., as Mrs. Splinters; Ryan Goertzen, senior from Goessel, as Mr. Jenks; and Sarah Pohl, senior from Moundridge, as Mrs. Jenks.

The Tender Land will be on the Krehbiel Auditorium stage in the Fine Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. each evening, March 2 and 3.

Tickets are available at Thresher Bookstore in Schultz Student Center, open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, phone 316-284-5205, or at the Fine Arts Center ticket booth starting one hour before each performance, subject to availability. Ticket prices are: adults $12; non-Bethel students and adults age 65 and older $10; children (ages 3-12) and Bethel students $5.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2011-12. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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