There aren’t many operas that open with jazz piano. And there certainly aren’t many where the heroine dies twice. But, with its half-hour runtime and cowboy theme, The Face on the Barroom Floor was never meant to match the grandiose operas of old in the first place. It’s ideally performed in the cramped space of a real bar after all.
Now, forty years after it was first produced in mining-town-turned-opera-stalwart Central City, Colorado, a handful of San Jose’s musical pioneers are teaming up to give The Face on the Barroom Floor a fresh look in the new 3 Below Theaters & Lounge. This upcoming production is bound to be special. Not only does it feature names like San Jose Chamber Orchestra Founder Barbara Day Turner and past Director for Opera San Jose Daniel Helfgot, but it is also a celebration of the opera’s composer and longtime San Jose resident, Henry Mollicone. The show will feature performances of many of his other compositions alongside the opera.
Mollicone, who was once described by Metro News as the “man who has put San Jose on the map in the music world” and who started his career as musical assistance on Leonard Bernstein’s infamous musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, said the upcoming production was like a gift. “I mean how kind of them to do that. They’re real friends.”
The Face on the Barroom Floor was inspired by a painting in the Teller House Bar in Central City. The painting itself is linked to an old poem of the same name by Hughe Antoine d’Arcy that describes a trodden painter sharing his tale of lost love in a saloon one night. Though a western and an opera might seem like an odd pair, the music seamlessly transitions from lively piano reminiscent of walking through swinging saloon doors to operatic arias full of powerful voices and dramatic melodies.
Most of all, Mollicone remembers The Face on the Barroom Floor as the piece that jump-started his career. For a small commission, he composed a hit that would quickly spread across the country. “The next year it had about fifty productions. It was all over. I’ve never had a piece that was done so many places and I probably never will.” He attributes its success to its practicality—it only requires three musicians and three singers—and its accessibility. “It’s the kind of piece that someone who doesn’t necessarily love opera might get into…It sort of sneaks into an opera.”
The 40th Anniversary of Henry Mollicone’s Face on the Barroom Floor will run from August 24 to August 26 in 3 Below Theaters & Lounge. The production will also include performances of several of Mollicone’s other compositions. Get tickets here.
San Jose’s first production of Face on the Barroom Floor took place in the 80’s on the second floor of what is now Cafe Stritch. Several of the people involved are back for this upcoming production, including Barbara Day Turner, Daniel Helfgot and the Tenor, Stephen Guggenheim:
Barbara Day Turner, Conductor
Barbara Day Turner has frequently worked with Mollicone in her long career with the San Jose Chamber Orchestra, which she founded nearly three decades ago. Outside of San Jose, she has served as Resident Conductor and Head of Music Staff at the Utah Festival Opera and as a guest conductor across the country and in Germany. In addition to working on the first San Jose production of Face on the Barroom Floor and Hotel Eden, she has worked with Mollicone on non-operatic pieces, having commissioned and performed several of them for the San Jose Chamber Orchestra.
She remembers Face on the Barroom Floor fondly, especially the close proximity it creates with the audience. “It has sort of ragtime saloon elements in the music as well as this glorious trio that’s very operatic in all the good ways…It’s a piece that people from both sides of the aisle can enjoy immensely.”
As for working with her husband, Daniel Helfgot, she said it is always a treat. “Opera does best if you have a conductor and director that are able to form the same outlook on the opera and that are flexible enough to negotiate all those small points that come up as you’re working.”
Stephen Guggenheim, Tenor
Stephen Guggenheim had wanted to be a singer since he was young, but he only discovered his calling for opera when he was a student at San Jose State. While there, he started singing with Opera San Jose before moving on to the San Francisco Opera and then across the world. Recently, he made his Carnegie Hall debut in Manhattan. After having advanced so far in his career, he holds a special place in his heart for operas like Face on the Barroom Floor, which he performed early on in San Jose. “I just have great nostalgia for the piece…There’s so much emotion and storytelling packed into a short period of time. It’s pretty incredible”
Like Helfgot and Day Turner, he was involved in the San Jose productions of Hotel Eden and Starbird. He actually sang his first major role in a production that included the two of them. “We have been intertwined through the years all over…As we get older, we can pick and choose what we sing—we don’t just take every job—and my choice is to sing with the people that I love.”
Daniel Helfgot, Stage Director
Daniel Helfgot’s career as an opera director began when he left his home country of Argentina after judging it no longer safe to pursue his original profession of journalism there. He already had degrees in stage direction and set design, so the switch was familiar. Eventually, he wound up in San Jose as the Resident Director and Director of Production for Opera San Jose where he transformed the program from a workshop at San Jose State into the professional company it is today. He also met his wife, Barbara Day Turner, while working in the city. For the past 40 years, he has made San Jose his home base while directing productions all over the world.
Helfgot was the director for the first San Jose production of Face on the Barroom Floor and he is excited to return to the work. “Whenever I do some opera more than once, I try to start from scratch, because, particularly if it is a good piece, there are always new things to find in it.” He has a strong history of working with Mollicone; in the past, he has staged Mollicone’s opera Starbird and the world premiere of his opera Hotel Eden. “[Henry Mollicone] has been a friend since day one, and to work on a friend’s piece is really a double joy…this is like, in many ways, a family reunion.”
Written by Justin Sun
Photography, Stephen Guggenheim by Arabela Espinoza; Barbara Day Turner by Daniel Garcia