A poignant, coming-of-age story set on a Midwestern farm will be staged on the front porch and lawn of the American Gothic House as part of the American Gothic Performing Arts Festival two-week performing arts festival June 7-21.

Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday, June 7 at the iconic house in Eldon. The production features student singers from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point and the University of Iowa, Drake University faculty mezzo soprano Ann Cravero, and local singers from Southeast Iowa. The performance is under the direction of Keokuk County native and current professor of music at UWSP Susan Bender. The orchestra will be conducted by Dennis Willhoit.

Set in a small rural Iowa town after World War II, The Tender Land is the story of Laurie, a young farm girl yearning for a way out. When traveling workers are hired to help with the spring harvest, one of them and Laurie fall in love, setting off rumors and trouble in the tightly knit town.

“The is a relatable, sweet story with beautiful choruses,” says Bender. With its American music, authentic clothing, and a set filled with straw bales and wagons in front of one of the most recognizable houses in the world, the show makes opera accessible for Southeast Iowa audiences.

“Audiences may find they are reminded of the Golden Age of Rodgers and Hammerstein when they hear the music, but the ranges are broader,” says Bender, “It’s opera. The drama is always big.”
Among the pieces in the show is The Promise of Living, a famous choral work frequently chosen as an All-State Chorus selection. There’s also square dancing says Bender.

Collaboration between Bender and Willhoit is not new. They were faculty colleagues for several years at UWSP and began talking about this project two years ago.

“We have had students singers from all over the Upper Midwest for the last eight seasons,” says Willhoit, “but we have a special connection to the UWSP students.” They have performed for AGPAF’s children’s operas and mainstage shows each season. “When Susan said that she would be producing the show in 2019, the ideas started to flow and here we are.”


Willhoit says that the festival offers the opportunity for the young singer/actors to work within the expectations of a professional timeline and experiment with their craft without the constraints of balancing classes and social pressures found on the university campus. “Singers come prepared to perform,” says Willhoit, “so that we can focus on telling the story, not learning the parts.”

The event is free with an ice cream and pie social during intermission. A free will offering will be available to support the festival event. Cedar Valley Winery will be on hand prior to the show for a wine tasting. While some seating will be provided, audience members are invited to bring lawn chairs and blankets.