Partner Aaron Copland, Jack Kelly

Erik Johns (1927 – December 11, 2001) wrote the libretto for Aaron Copland's only full-length opera, ''The Tender Land.''

Johns was born Horace Eugene Johnston in Los Angeles and began his career as a dancer. When he was 19 in 1946 he met Copland at a New Year's Eve party in New York, and the two began a relationship. Johns remained in Los Angeles with Copland visiting him while working on film scores until 1948, when Johns moved into Copland's house in Sneden's Landing, N.Y. For the next several years Johns was Copland's secretary.

In 1952 Copland and Johns began work on an opera based on ''Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,'' the James Agee and Walker Evans book of photographs of Depression-era sharecroppers. Johns devised the story of a poor farming family in the Midwest changed by the arrival of two drifters, and he wrote the libretto under the pseudonym Horace Everett.

The work was commissioned as a television opera by NBC but was later rejected by the network. The New York City Opera performed it at its premiere at City Center on April 1, 1954, in a short two-act version. Over the next year Copland and Johns expanded it into a longer, three-act version. Copland's only other opera was ''The Second Hurricane,'' a short piece written in 1936.

Copland and Johns parted in 1954 but remained close, and Johns served as an adviser to the board of Copland House, a composer's retreat in Copland's residence in Peekskill, N.Y. Copland died in 1990.

In the 1950's Johns formed the company Party Decorators with Jack Kelly. The company decorated the inaugural dinner of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and the inaugural parties of President Jimmy Carter in 1977. The two men also ran an antiques business. Kelly died in 1989.

Johns later wrote the librettos for ''Tea Party,'' an opera by Jack Gottlieb, and ''Mission to the World,'' an oratorio by John Schlenck commemorating the centenary of the Vedanta Society of New York, which espouses a philosophy based on Hindu scriptures. Johns became an active member of the society in 1955.

He died on December 11, 2001, in a fire at his home in East Fishkill, N.Y. He was 74. The police said the cause of death was smoke inhalation.

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  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/18/arts/erik-johns-74-librettist-of-copland-s-tender-land.html