February 20, 2018

The Librettist’s Fate

I just came across this interesting and somewhat humorous article written some years back by the librettist of my opera THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR and EMPEROR NORTON, my friend John S. Bowman. Truly, librettist’s do not get proper credit for their work, and Bowman manages to write about that with some good humor:

“One of the prices I have paid by being a “jack of all trades” is that, aside from being “master of none,” I have never established a reputation in any field. For example, only immediate family and old friends are aware that I had a minor career as an author of opera librettos. That’s another story. But in 1978, the one that has since enjoyed the most success, The Face (on the Barroom Floor) — that is, the opera by my collaborator-composer, Henry Mollicone – had its “world premiere” at the Central City (Colorado) Opera Festival.

I went out just to be present and after a short stay for the first couple of performances, took my return flight home. The first leg was from Denver to Chicago, and after we were airborne I got out some of the materials from the occasion and began to look at them more closely. I was on the aisle and at some point the woman in the middle seat spoke up: “Excuse me,” she said, “but I can’t help noticing that you’re reading a program from the Central City Opera Festival. Were you just there?” I said yes and she pursued her questioning, and after being asked if perhaps I had been a singer in the production, I felt I was justified in saying, “No, but I wrote the libretto.”

Well, that really got to her — imagine, meeting an opera librettist! True, she asked the question that everyone asks upon hearing that I have written an opera libretto: “So, tell me, after the composer has written all that music, how do you manage to fit the words to it?” And I patiently — and I hope modestly — explained that in fact the librettist writes the words first and the composer then sets them to music.

Anyway, the man on the window seat had been studiously avoiding appearing that he had any interest in this ongoing conversation, but the irrepressible lady in the middle now turned to him and said, “Imagine, this gentleman here has written an opera libretto!” The window-seat man acknowledged this without showing any particular interest, but the middle-seat lady was not to be deterred. “And what do you do for a living?”

Aha! I’m thinking — this unprepossessing gentleman, forced to confess that he sells widgets, is going to have to show some appreciation that he has been placed in a row with an opera librettist. Finally — recognition!

Instead he replies, “I’m a painter.”

“A painter!” she exclaims. “Really — what kind?”

“Watercolors,” he somewhat grudgingly admits.

Well, that did it. She lost all interest in me and now turned her full barrage on him, gradually forcing him to confess that he was, in fact, a watercolorist with a major reputation – Irving Shapiro, represented in many major museum collections and the teacher of generations of watercolorists in Chicago. (I confirmed this when I arrived home, And you need only google him to discover how many still pay tribute to him!)

The middle-seat lady did try to put me back on a pedestal by exclaiming at one point, “Just imagine, on an airplane in the 20th century, I’m sitting between an opera librettist and a watercolorist!” But it was quite clear: an opera librettist of no reputation, with only one short work in Central City, was trumped by a watercolorist with a national reputation. Fortunately she would never discover that I also wrote baseball books…



Henry Mollicone & Leonard Bernstein: A Cold Day in Philadelphia (1600 Pennsylvania Ave)

A big influence in my own work is the music of Leonard Bernstein. Having grown up watching his “Young People’s Concerts” on TV as a boy, it was a thrill when I was in my 20s to work with him as a musical assistant on his show 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, which he wrote with Allen Jay Lerner. Sadly, the show was a flop, but working with the inspiring Maestro was still a great experience. I am often asked about this, and will tell one anecdote.

Personally, I found him always to be a gentleman, treating people with respect. At one point in the rehearsal process, the show was in Philadelphia in it’s pre-Broadway version. The choreographer asked me if I would write a new piece of dance music based on Bernstein’s tunes; I asked Bernstein, and he gave me the go ahead to do it. (I was thrilled).

When the piano score was completed, I brought it to his hotel in Philly and we sat together at the piano as I played it for him. (The show was in trouble, so the general atmosphere in rehearsals was tense). He liked what he heard (which made me very happy!), but said we need to work on a few things. So we stayed at the piano for about an hour and a half, as he made subtle changes here and there. Finally, after this “composition lesson” with the Maestro, he said it was ready to give to the orchestrators Sid Ramon and Hershy Kay.

It was a cold, snowy day in Philly, and as I was leaving his hotel ready to brave the elements, I said to him, “Well, Mr. Bernstein (I never called him “Lenny”), we worked hard on this. I certainly hope the choreographer likes it.” He was sitting down ready to make a phone call and looked up at me sadly, saying: “If he doesn’t like it, fuck ‘em”!  Having grown up thinking of him as a musical master, I was a bit amused at this and other similar incidents where he revealed himself to be a normal human being, susceptible to anger and frustration just like the rest of us!

Unfortunately, the failure of the show to have success on Broadway was very depressing to him; this is unfortunate, as it contains a lot of wonderful music and lyrics. Fortunately it has been “saved” by some of his musical assistants after his passing by putting a lot of the show’s best music into a work now called “A White House Cantata”. Check out the recording!