By Deborah Morrow, Director of Education and Community Engagement
The infamous “Face on the Barroom Floor” is something of a conundrum. Most everyone knows that there is an actual face painted on the floor of the Teller House bar in Central City.
But the famous poem, “The Face Upon the Floor” from 1887 (and its predecessor from 1874) is not about this particular face – we know that the painting in the Teller House was created in 1936. And, while the popular 1978 chamber opera, The Face on the Barroom Floor, was inspired by both the painting and the poem, it is not the true story of how the face came to be there, nor does it reflect the story told in the poem.
The Central City Opera season program book includes an article about the poem(s) and how the painting came to be on the floor in the Teller House, so we’ll take this opportunity to explore a bit more about the opera.
Henry Mollicone, a rising young American composer, received a commission in the mid-1970s to create an opera celebrating the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Central City Opera House in 1978. He initially thought the commission was for a full-length opera, but later learned that it should be a short piece written for a very small cast and orchestra. Mr. Mollicone and his chosen librettist John S. Bowman knew little about Central City but Bowman remembered seeing a brochure featuring the painting of the face on the Teller House floor. They looked up the poem on the same subject and decided to use it as a jumping off point. It was Bowman’s idea to set the opera in the Teller House Bar with a cast of three, and begin the tale in the present day, with reference to the opera festival. The story would then “flashback” to the same location one hundred years earlier.
With most operas, the libretto is written before the music, although the composer does collaborate with the librettist, asking for lyrics for a duet here and a trio there as needed. That was essentially true for Face but Mr. Mollicone did write one melody for the soprano before he had any lyrics. He sent a cassette tape of the melody to John Bowman, who, not having the proper equipment to play that new technology at home, had to go to the library to listen to it. He maintained that he walked around humming the melody constantly until he found the right words. It became Madeleine’s poignant ballad “He came to the West.” According to Mollicone, the trio “He paints the portrait of his love” developed from the need for a musical number while the artist paints the portrait on the floor. Bowman’s lyrics created individual reveries for each character, and Mollicone wove haunting melodies among the three voices.
Mollicone claims that when they were writing the opera, he lamented that it was such a local piece – he assumed that the chances of it being mounted elsewhere were slim to none. He was quite wrong about that. With its infectious jazzy and cowboy-western styles, compelling story, small cast and short length, it has been performed all over the US and beyond. It was included in the Central City Opera festival repertory most summers from 1978 to 2010, and now returns, as fresh as ever, for its 40th anniversary.