'The Face on the Barroom Floor' Celebrates 40 Years

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The eponymous "face on the barroom floor" in Central City, Colorado that inspired the one-act opera by composer Henry Mollicone and librettist John Bowman. (Photo: Courtesy of Teller House)

Composer Henry Mollicone was a young man 40 years ago when the Central City Opera Company in Colorado commissioned him to write something short, something its younger singers could cut their teeth on. 

"To our great shock it caught on like wildfire," he says.

Mollicone, a South Bay local, doesn’t have an exact count as to how many times The Face on the Barroom Floor has been performed since 1978, but it’s well north of 700.

"Unbelievable. We had no idea that it would become a popular work," he says.

No, that's not a common fate for most modern American operas, even for Mollicone, who's written more than one popular work in a long, successful career as a composer. Mollicone suspects this opera's enduring appeal is tied to the fact that it’s cheap to perform.


"There’s only three instruments and three singers, and all you need is a set, the barroom set. Or even better, perform it in a barroom," Mollicone says.

Also, there's the engaging libretto by John Bowman, inspired by a locally-famous painting of a pretty woman's face on the floor of a hotel bar near the Central City Opera House. The Denver artist who created it, Herndon Davis, was said to have used his wife Juanita as the model, but the concept was inspired by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy’s 1887 poem, The Face Upon the Floor. Here's a wee excerpt to give you an idea:

Say boys, if you give me just another whiskey, I'll be glad.
And I'll draw right here a picture, of the face that drove me mad.
Give me that piece of chalk with which you mark the baseball score
And you shall see the lovely Madeline upon the barroom floor.

The poem, it must be said, is a little dated. But it wasn't anything more than a loose inspiration for the opera. "We created our own story," Mollicone says.

The Central City Opera Company still performs the opera it commissioned. In their production earlier this year, Zachary Johnson played Tom and John.
The Central City Opera Company still performs the opera it commissioned. In their production earlier this year, Zachary Johnson played Tom and John. (Photo: Courtesy of Amanda Tipton)

The opera tells two tales, separated in time, and parallel in character and theme. The poem's Madeline becomes a saloon girl in a 19th-century gold mining camp. Her modern counterpart, sung by the same singer, is Isabel, an ambitious up-and-comer in the Central City Opera chorus. Both are loved by two men, and as the opera moves between centuries, the parallel plots come to the same tragic end — all in less than half an hour.

Mollicone's music is accessible, even to non-opera fans, as it draws liberally from jazz and musical theater. "It's melodic. Like many of my operas, it has popular jazz elements woven into an operatic texture. I call a lot of my operatic works crossover pieces," he says.

Barbara Day Turner and Daniel Helfgot, a super couple in the South Bay opera world working on the latest rendition of The Face, agree. Turner is the founder and music director of the San Jose Chamber Orchestra, which is performing The Face on the Barroom Floor at 3Below Theaters.

Helfgot is a stage director. "We love Henry Mollicone's musical language. We've done at least three of his operas," he says.

"He really is a treasure," says Turner, who recalls performing Face on the Barroom Floor roughly 30 years ago with Opera San Jose, back when the space Cafe Stritch now occupies was the Eulipia Restaurant and Bar.

If you're thinking a half hour is rather short for a schlep to downtown San Jose, you'll be pleased to hear there's more to the evening than the opera. Its performance will be preceded by a selection of Mollicone's other works, as well as a clip from a 2013 documentary, The Face On The Barroom Floor: The Poem, The Place, The Opera.

As for why Turner believes the opera hasn't aged out of the opera world's repertoire? "Human relationships and artistry: It’s a story that's not tied to a time."

Helfgot adds, "Most opera was written reflecting some contemporary issues. The fact that they survive the time is because the musical language is valuable. Most operas premiere and you never hear about them again. So the fact that [The Face on the Barroom Floor] has been around for forty years is a really good sign."

The Face on the Barroom Floor plays August 24-26, 2018 at 3Below Theaters in San Jose. For more information, click here.