“Which comes first, music or words?” Celebrating National Opera Week with Henry Mollicone

In honor of National Opera Week (Oct. 27 – Nov. 5), E. C. Schirmer explores the creative process behind writing and producing new opera. Join us as we commemorate the creativity, diligence, and hard work of the composers, librettists, and producers who bring those operas to life.

Henry Mollicone

Henry Mollicone’s one-act operas, Emperor NortonStarbird, The Face on the Barroom Floor, and The Mask of Evil, commissioned by the Central City Opera, Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, the Kurt Herbert Adler Award Fund, and The Minnesota Opera, have been performed extensively. The Face on the Barroom Floor, a recipient of the American Composers’ Recording Award, is one of America ‘s most oft-performed contemporary operas, and has also been produced in various European countries. Mr. Mollicone has guest-conducted at several American opera companies including those in Baltimore, Portland, Augusta, Lake George and Central City. In 1976, Mr. Mollicone was a musical assistant to Leonard Bernstein for the show 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and from 1971 to 1976 was an assistant conductor at the New York City Opera.

What is your all-time favorite opera?
La Traviata!

What was the first opera you ever saw live?

If you could choose one artist to perform one of your operas, who would it be?
Too many – can’t choose one!

Who is your opera role model?
Verdi (of course!)

What’s something about composing opera that people don’t know?
Interestingly, I find a lot of people who love opera ask the question “which comes first, music or words?” In opera, usually the words are written first, but sometimes a composer will give a librettist a melody, and a master librettist such as Sheldon Harnick  can handle the task very well.  A few times people have said to me, “It’s amazing how you could write the music and the librettist can find the words to fit it.” That is, of course, an impossible task since the words are the foundation- the skeleton if you will- that sets the moods, structure, emotional content, etc., of the music.  In Broadway music, the answer is different: sometimes the words come first, and other times the music.

What is the biggest challenge in composing opera?
The commitment. The process is going on within the composer’s mind 24 seven, whether consciously or not.  Keeping up with the rest of your life while writing a large opera- or even a one-act- is a large task, and I find it takes serious effort to do so.  Opera just might be the most complicated musical form.  For me the most important elements are melody (which is of course married to harmony), and the emotional impact the work will have on the audience.

What are three important things to keep in mind when producing an opera?
Finding the best possible singers, director, and conductor; publicising the opera in a creative way so that audiences really want to see/hear the work; doing all you can to obtain with approval of the unions some kind of representative recording- audio or video, as getting new productions is an almost impossible task without having the ability to have other possible producers see/hear the piece.

What is your greatest priority in creating new opera?
Doing my best to reach the audience on an emotional level.  To me the greatest joy for a composer is to touch an audience in a positive way.  Composing music (as in writing, painting, etc.) is, or should in my opinion, come from a very deep place within the creator.  That’s why it is difficult sometimes  for me to sit through a premiere of my work.  Recently I was honored when Steven M. Crawford (a fine conductor from the Met) conducted the NYC premiere of a recent opera I wrote with librettist Sheldon Harnick, and told me that his wife was brought to tears in the finale of the piece.  Music should be written to bring pleasure and awareness to the audience!  This does not mean compromising what you are doing, but rather writing the best possible work you can while always keeping your audience in mind.  In the tough years of the 20th century, this was considered the wrong approach.  BALDERDASH!  It worked well for the master composers in the past!  I feel writing only for yourself and your colleagues is a selfish waste of time.

How did you come to create your first opera?
Interesting question!  I fell in love with the voice in high school, as my high school girlfriend (Carleen!) was a soprano.  I wrote a lot of things for her to sing so that our conservative parents would let us spend more time together to rehearse!! The girlfriend disappeared after our short romance, but the love of the voice continued, and I began coaching for the opera dept. at the New England Conservatory, where I decided it was time for me to write an original opera based on Hawthorn’s Young Goodman Brown.  I learned so much doing this, and learned even more when I got a job as a pianist at the New York City Opera after graduating college.  THAT was an education!  Thanks to two great men, composer Gunther Schuller and conductor Julius Rudel, I was able to receive my first opera commission.  Unfortunately I was going through writer’s block, as the accepted style was twelve tone music, and that must was not in my blood, so the piece didn’t turn out well as I was attempting to make my style sound more “modern.”  Thank God tonality (to my surprise) came back and was acceptable again— at that point I began to find my real compositional voice, and my next opera was the 25 minute The Face on the Barroom Floor, which still is my most performed work in that genre.

For more information about Henry Mollicone and his catalogue, click here.

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