In 1978, composer Henry Mollicone was 32 and living in Los Angeles, playing piano in a gin mill at night, struggling to get work as a film scorer during the day. He wasn't having much success. Then someone asked him to write a one-act opera about the haunted face of a young woman, a kind of enchantress, painted on the floor of a bar in a Colorado mining town -- and that's where the opera would be performed.
"In the bar? I mean, come on," says Mollicone, laughing at the strangeness of it, 35 years later. He's sitting at his dining room table in Saratoga, telling the story of "The Face on the Barroom Floor," which "gave me a career," he says. It became his calling card, performed by scores of opera companies around the world, given winning reviews in Newsweek and the New Yorker -- and now is the inspiration for a documentary, "The Face on the Barroom Floor: The Poem, the Place, the Opera."
The film, directed by Lawrence Kraman, makes its South Bay debut Sunday at the Camera 7 Cinemas in Campbell. Mollicone will be there for a post-screening discussion.
The film works on several levels.
First, there's "The Face upon the Barroom Floor," a 19th-century poem by Hugh Antoine d'Arcy, which tells the story of an artist who loses his beloved to another man and begins to sketch her face on the floor of his favorite watering hole. Inspired by that poem one night in 1936, after drinking one too many beers, an artist named Herndon Davis really did paint such a face on the floor of the Teller House Bar in Central City, Colo., an old gold-mining town.
Now it just so happens that the Teller House Bar -- the building dates to 1872, and the bar today is known as the Face Bar -- sits beside the Central City Opera House. And in 1978, while Mollicone was pursuing his L.A. film dreams, the Central City Opera company was about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. How to mark the event? Its director decided to commission an opera, based on the poem and to have it performed that summer in the bar next door, the place with the face. Enter young Mollicone, who had sent some cassettes of his music to the company's director, hoping to snare the commission.
"It's the great Americana story," Kraman says. "You've got this American opera company in gold-mining country. And then there's Henry, this babe in the woods, with the music just spilling out of him. And his opera turns out to be this perfect piece of art -- and it's still performed all the time, in a college or bar somewhere."
David Patrick Stearns, the Philadelphia Inquirer's classical music writer, who scripted the film, says, "You could be an opera maven and never have heard of 'Face,' yet it is one of the most performed American operas, ever." He calls it "a miniature masterpiece." He adds, "The more I hear it, the more I take to it. Oh, my God, the trio," he says, referring to the opera's miraculously lovely centerpiece number. "It's one of the most beautiful trios this side of 'Der Rosenkavalier,'" by Richard Strauss.
If you think this is hyperbole, see the film. It includes interviews with two venerable composers, former teachers of Mollicone. One is Gunther Schuller, who describes "Face" as "perfectly made." The other is David Del Tredici, who credits Mollicone with composing an "American classic."
Less than half an hour long, and performed by three singers and three instrumentalists, the opera (with libretto by John S. Bowman, Mollicone's old college friend) is a study in lyric compression, dosed with humor via the barrelhouse piano that weaves through the score. Loosely based on the poem, it floats between centuries and tells the story of a doomed love triangle -- and of the lost beloved, whose face is painted right there on the floor.
For 33 consecutive summers, this charmer was performed by Central City Opera. Many other companies also have performed it. The list includes New York City Opera's touring company, Houston Grand Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Opera San Jose, plus companies in Germany, Scotland and the Netherlands.
"I'm lucky," says Mollicone, a modest man whose high-class oeuvre includes other operas, plus oratorios, song cycles and symphonic works. "It caught on so quickly and it even got that good review in Newsweek, which was a big thing in those days. So it gave me a beginning, an entree into the opera world, which led to bigger pieces and commissions and everything I've done since. Now it's like an old friend."
'The Face on the Barroom Floor: The Poem,
the Place, the Opera'
New documentary by Lawrence Kraman, inspired by Henry Mollicone's opera and presented by San Jose Chamber Orchestra and the Retro Dome
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Camera 7 Cinemas, Pruneyard shopping center, 1875 S. Bascom Ave., Campbell
Tickets: $15; 408 295-4416, www.sjcotickets.org
Also: "The Face on the
Barroom Floor," recorded by City Center Opera, is available on the New World Records label