By Scott MacClelland
THIS WEEKEND, the Los Angeles Opera will stage the premiere of Henry Mollicone’s new opera, Moses, with performances at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The production is a gift—free admission to the citizens of LA—the brainchild of LA Opera music director James Conlon, who will conduct the orchestra and chorus of accomplished area amateurs, professionals and solo voices, a massive contingent intended to dazzle the 3,000-seat capacity cathedral. Mollicone told me in a recent phone chat that fans and friends of his will be coming to LA from all over the country. (Me too.)
Mollicone is no stranger to the Monterey Bay. His “Beatitude” Mass, composed to raise money for the homeless, was sung last season in Salinas and Monterey. Several of his works, including premieres, were performed by the Santa Cruz Symphony when Larry Granger was its music director. But perhaps he is best known for his operas, many of them premiered by Central City Opera in the mountains west of Denver. His Face on the Barroom Floor, with an O’Henry twist, is the most performed opera in America; all it needs is three singers, one piano and a barroom. Name a more portable opera if you can.
Face is joined by several more one-act operas by Mollicone, including Emperor Norton, Starbird, The Mask of Evil and, from 2016, Lady Bird: First Lady of the Land. They join Mollicone’s full-length operas, Coyote Tales, Hotel Eden and Gabriel’s Daughter, film music, music for ballet and a variety of personalized commissions, even a self-portrait in honor of his wife, Kathy’s White Knight. In 1999, he resurrected the Santa Clara University orchestra as the independent Winchester Orchestra in San Jose, which today he serves as music director emeritus.
The Los Angeles commission came by way of an introduction in 2016 to Conlon of Mollicone’s music by Frank Brownstead, now-retired director of the Cathedral Choir and long-time friend of the composer. “I was lucky,” Mollicone told me. “I thought Conlon might have been too busy to listen to my music but I was wrong about that.” Once the commission was confirmed, Mollicone went right to work.
In 2017, he submitted a first version and recorded a “horrible” CD, “with me singing through the opera. It was a weird sensation.” After comments from colleagues, Conlon said he could see what this “looks like.” In 2018, knowing that he was scheduled for some exploratory surgery, Mollicone felt he needed to complete the opera beforehand. “I finished and orchestrated it before I went into the hospital. It was the fastest work I’ve ever written.” As it turned out, he received a diagnosis of cancer, and is now being treated for it, with a positive response to date.
Conlon began his proposed annual ‘gift to LA’ six years ago with a staging of the medieval Play of Daniel. But the project advanced only by fits and starts. Conlon’s vision was as much about pageant as opera. He complained about one commission, which he felt was too difficult for the large contingent of community choirs and musicians. This time, however, Conlon told Mollicone, “We finally got it right.”
Between orchestra and choirs, Moses is a huge score that, in the space of little more than one hour details the life of the infant who was found floating among bulrushes, became a prince, then persuaded the Pharaoh through a sequence of terrible plagues to let his people go. (Mollicone said he used kazoos for the Plague of Locusts.) Contrary to his preferred involvement with creating a new work, and because preserving his health was now more important, Mollicone kept himself out of the process and deferred to Conlon and his people to work out the details. Not a bad choice; Conlon is a consummate professional with an outstanding reputation. “I will not hear the piece until March 20, my birthday,” Mollicone says.
Who could wish for a better—or more biblical—birthday present?!