The Face on the Barroom Floor DVD
Stage director Robert Darling describes it as “the most popular American opera” of the last 35 years and “the most produced.” Henry Mollicone’s The Face on the Barroom Floor is the subject of a new 90-minute documentary produced and directed by Lawrence Kraman, owner of the independent recording company, Newport Classic. Available on DVD this coming spring, The Face on the Barroom Floor: the poem, the place, the opera contains a performance of the 25-minute piece as well as background on the company that originally commissioned it and commentary from many well-known professionals who have worked with Mollicone or performed his music.
Yet the fascinating story behind this best-known of Mollicone’s one-act operas doesn’t refer to its local connections. The idea for the opera came from Darling, who has stage-directed many opera productions at Hidden Valley Music Seminars in Carmel Valley (most recently Mozart’s Don Giovanni). (Hidden Valley put on The Face two or three decades back during one of its now legendary Opera Ensemble seasons.)
Mollicone, who lives in San Jose, has composed commissions from the Santa Cruz Symphony, and has had several of his concert works performed in the Monterey Bay area. His 2006 Beatitude Mass, composed for the San Jose Symphonic Choir, has become his latest “greatest hit” with frequent performances in California, including Monterey, and cities across the country—although his original spiritual, Hear me Redeemer, may ultimately be his ticket to immortality. (He has had much more exposure elsewhere, with the San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Minnesota Opera, Opera San Jose, at Washington’s Kennedy Center and in Europe.)
Darling has connections with Central City Opera, the company that uses the restored opera house in what was a 19th century gold mining town in the mountains west of Denver. Today, tourism and the opera are the major “industries” in what otherwise would most likely be a ghost town. Emeritus conductor John Moriarty says, “The opera association has never been tethered to the town. However, the town has been tethered to the opera association.” Kraman’s documentary recounts the history of Central City (complete with an extensive gallery of historic photos), of the Teller House hotel there, and its bar where the famous face was painted. It also surveys the history of the opera company itself, and its many premieres. The Face has been performed in the Teller House bar every year since its premiere in 1978.
The face on the floor—painted surreptitiously in 1936 by Herndon Davis who had done wall paintings during restoration of the opera house—and the romantic 1887 poem by Hugh D’Arcy gave Mollicone the idea for the opera as a way to celebrate the company’s centenary. Librettist John Bowman (who recites the poem in the documentary) prepared a three-act opera only to find himself having to condense it down to something that could be performed in a bar, at almost the drop of a hat. Darling says Mollicone “came up with the most perfect solution.” His score calls for soprano, tenor and baritone, honky-tonk piano, flute, cello and pistol.
Kraman’s documentary includes footage from a 1914 Keystone film with Charlie Chaplin in a reenactment of the D’Arcy ballad. In addition to playing piano in the actual opera, Mollicone is seen working with other artists, not least librettist Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) with whom he collaborated on the enchanting Coyote Tales—based on Native American creation myths—in 1998 for Kansas City’s Lyric Opera.
Mollicone’s contribution to American opera and concert music is put into its rightful perspective by the likes of Frederica von Stade, Metropolitan opera soprano Erie Mills, mentor Julius Rudel (general director of New York City Opera, 1957-1979) and composers Gunther Schuller and David Del Tredici.
And to bring this story full circle, the premiere production of Coyote Tales was recorded, and is available on CD, from—you guessed it—Newport Classic. (PS: in the NC catalog you can find local renaissance-man David Gordon’s “JS Bach: Tenor arias with Flute”, easily recommended.)
From Sunday, and posted to our Music Reviews page are Heather Morris’s coverage of the piano duo Anderson and Roe and my own of Elizabeth Wallfisch and David Brietman.
Be sure to consult our Calendar page, now that action has picked up after the holidays lull.
Scott MacClelland, editor