February 20, 2018

Emperor Norton

Opera in 1 Act
No recording available at this time

Libretto by John S. Bowman

Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Tenor, Baritone


Piano, Violin, Cello

Approx. 1 hour

Diana and Michael arrive at a theatre to audition for a play about Emperor Norton, and are soon interrupted by the arrival of Marla, the playwright. She is astonished that they have been invited to audition, since the play is unfinished, but decides she can use their talents to work out the more difficult scenes of the play. A man emerges from the wings dressed as a nineteenth-century emperor, protesting that the scene bears little resemblance to Norton’s actual death. He also challenges their perceptions of other episodes in the play. Marla, Diana and Michael begin to see how the threads of the mystery come together. Marla, won over, demands that they restage the scenes, and she joins her destiny with his; Empress to his Emperor, in the realm of fantasy, spirit, art, and love.

Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera Company and the Kurt Herbert Adler Award Fund for “Brown Bag Opera.”


“Henry Mollicone ‘s operas–at least those that have been produced in the Washington area–have the virtues of succinctness, distinctive melody and a strongly developed sense of style that matches the composer’s eclectic tastes. His most popular work so far…seems to be The Face on the Barroom Floor, produced a few years ago by Opera Southwest, but Emperor Norton, as performed by the same company, is an even more effective work of art… Norton is more recent than Barroom and seems to show substantial growth in Mollicone’s mastery of the difficult form of one-act opera. Its emotions, ranging from near-slapstick comedy to pathos, are good raw material for his eclectic, easily accessible style…”

“With Emperor Norton, composer Henry Mollicone has succeeded where the likes of Mozart, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini failed: He has produced an opera with just too many tunes. At least the kind that linger in the ear, resonate in the mind, and provide the variety of mood and feeling that characterize lyric theater at its best…offers up a genuine testimonial to qualities all too painfully lacking among opera composers of the younger generation–craftsmanship, fluency and accessibility. Little things like that. Mollicone, who has achieved something of an underground reputation for The Face On The Barroom Floor, has brewed this San Francisco Opera commission for domestic consumption…It is expressively and even beautifully written for the voice and the ensembles are cohesive, soaring affairs.”

“While the plot device is complicated for such a short work, Mollicone manages, by his expert, assured craftsmanship, to produce coherence and several touching scenes…the two big set pieces–‘He was an Emperor’…and the canon quartet finale, in which ‘He was an Emperor’ returns, are powerfully worked out in a Straussian vein of soaring lyricism. Two other fine moments are the Chinese girl’s lament and a humorous tarantella that accompanies Lola Montez’ ‘spider dance.'” OPERA NEWS – Stephanie Von Buchau

“Mollicone shows some genius as a miniaturist in these two short operas.”

“From its first notes through its various pairings of voices in vignettes real and imagined about the life of one of San Francisco’s great characters, to its poignant and wonderfully conceived ending, this is a work that sneaks up on you and subtly ensnares you in its magic. The music is filled with long, lyric melodies, sweet and sour harmonies and total honesty. …it also supports John S. Bowman’s admirable libretto completely, blending words and music in a way that renders one all but indistinguishable from the other. This is no mean accomplishment, and Emperor Norton deserves a wider audience than it has received since its premiere a decade or so ago.” THE PENINSULA TIMES TRIBUNE (PALO ALTO ) – Norman Lombino

“Mollicone’s score is rooted in Broadway as well as in opera. Using only piano, violin and cello, it is lyrical without being mushy, with enough slightly acerbic harmonies to identify its contemporaniety. It is good music, and the final scene gave me cold chills.”