Opera at Rutgers’ production of “Flora” treats audiences to an experience in time-travel. And to an experience in space-travel, as well. The re-creation of this ballad opera, the first opera presented in North America, takes place in performances on Friday, November 19, at 8 p.m., and on Sunday, November 21, at 2 p.m., at the Nicholas Music Center on the Douglass College campus of Rutgers in New Brunswick. Producer Pamela Gilmore, chief of the opera department at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, first became interested in the piece when she attended a performance last spring at the Dock Street Theater in Charleston, South Carolina.
The Dock Street Theater, which opened in 1736, is said to be the first structure built as a theater in the American colonies. The present Spoleto Festival USA, an annual spring event established in 1977, has depended on the space for chamber music concerts and other events.
“Flora” was among the shows included in the Dock’s first season (the piece had been presented the previous year, 1735, in the Charleston Court Room). The popular show was a magnet during the 18th century. Over time, a complete version of the work vanished.
Soon after 1800 a hotel was built on the site of the theater. The hotel fell into decay after the Civil War. In 1937 a reproduction of the original theater was built on the site. In 2007 the building closed for a three-year renovation costing $18 million. In May, 2010, the theater reopened and a re-creation of “Flora” was on the Spoleto Festival’s roster.
Princeton forces, too, contributed to the “Flora” performance last spring in Spoleto. Joe Miller, director of the Westminster Choir of Westminster Choir College of Rider University, traveled to Charleston to prepare the chorus. Members of the Westminster Choir took on substantial roles in the piece.
Rutgers’ Gilmore went to Charleston to see the production. “I thought it might be a vehicle that would work for us at Rutgers,” she says in a telephone interview from her Manhattan home. Convinced of its suitability she contacted Neely Bruce, the man who put meat on the bones of the surviving fragments of the opera. Bruce is a professor of music and American studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and a composer.
“Bruce’s was the first recreation of ‘Flora,’” Gilmore says. “It was wildly popular in its day. Neely found proof of its popularity in inventories of the personal property of soldiers who died in the Revolutionary War. On British officers there were statistically significant numbers of broadsheets, giving the lyrics for ‘Flora’s’ songs. Maybe the officers entertained themselves around campfires by singing.” The slain members of the non-professional Continental Army were more likely to have manuals on how to be a soldier, Gilmore says. “They needed to know things like how to clean a gun.”
“Many copies of the text survive, showing minimal change over time,” Bruce writes in the program notes to the opera. However, the score for the opera was essentially lost. “It was a bit like trying to make a suit of clothes with nothing but a thread,” he told the Charleston Post and Courier.
“Eighteen pages of single-line melody have been turned into about 400 pages of score,” Bruce wrote. “In effect, I have written a new 18th century opera.”
“The piece would have varied from venue to venue,” Gilmore says, “depending on the instruments and instrumentalists available. There was a theatrical circuit at the time that went from London to Charleston to Kingston, Jamaica. In Charleston no violas were available in 1735. Therefore, there are none in this performance.”
Since “Flora” is a ballad opera, the tunes existed before the words. Gilmore offers her definition of the genre. “Ballad opera was a phenomenon of the early 18th century. The music came from popular ballads of the day. People knew them well. The story was arranged around the tunes; the librettist wrote lyrics to fit the narrative. Typically, the lyrics were bawdy and somewhat ironic. Most of the parody and satire are lost on us today; the references were to current political situations.
“The librettist for ‘Flora’ was Colley Cibber. He was the poet laureate of England, but he was controversial. The more prominent poets of the time were outraged by his appointment. There were fist fights and riots. Alexander Pope was his arch rival.”
The action of “Flora” centers on a young orphaned noblewoman who is the ward of her greedy, lustful uncle, Sir Thomas Testy. Since Sir Thomas receives the interest on Flora’s property until she marries, he tries to prevent her marriage by imprisoning her in his house. Flora, however, already has a commitment to Mr. Tom Friendly. Flora and Friendly use Hob, a local rustic, to carry letters between them. Sir Thomas intercepts Hob as he is about to pass a letter to Flora and has him thrown into a well.
Hob’s parents rescue him from the well. The local populace turns against Sir Thomas. Friendly and Flora are reunited.
“I found ‘Flora’ to be a charming piece,” Gilmore says. “Our ensemble consists of 28 people. There are lots of roles, plus chorus and dance opportunities. It should be a spritely production. Christopher Newcomer, a countertenor who graduated in 2006, is coming back to sing the role of Hob’s mother.
“One of the appealing things for me about this ‘Flora’ is that we have a period instrumental ensemble at Rutgers,” Gilmore continues. That ensemble is the 11-member Musica Raritana Period Instrument Orchestra led by Andrew Kirkman. Educated in England, associate professor Kirkman has been at Rutgers since 1997. Particularly interested in the Renaissance and attracted to the music of Tudor England, Kirkman has also taught courses on music as recent as the 1960s. He founded the period instrumental ensemble in 2004.
“We have been doing baroque productions for seven years,” Gilmore says. “Andrew is very obliging. His period ensemble at Rutgers is a great asset. It provides wonderful performance practice experience for students.
“This is a production with virtually no financial support,” Gilmore adds. “It has no official budget. We try to make the most of what we have. We do it with smoke and mirrors and skimping.”
The Mason Gross Theater Program contributes costumes, stage management, and props and constructs scenery.
Producer Gilmore delights in the assistance of Marisa Arzillo, whom she calls “a talented graduate student.” She is the stage director and the costume designer. “She’s building many of the costumes herself. They’re gorgeous. She’s a singer and played Susannah in last year’s opera (Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah”). She has directing experience in opera and musical theater.”
Bridgewater resident Franklin Porath takes care of diction and accent issues. According to Gilmore, he is an aeronautical engineer and an opera lover who has had a varied career in the arts and has served as a diction coach at the Cleveland Opera. “He has lived in the west of England, so he’s familiar with the Somersetshire accent and how the speech of the rustics shows the gap in social class between them and the nobles. He turned up on my doorstep after I arrived at Rutgers and asked how he could help.”
Gilmore arrived at Rutgers in 2001 (“Pamela Gilmore: One Woman Opera Department,” U.S. 1 January 27, 2010). She grew up in Baldwin, Long Island, New York in the 1960s, the child of schoolteacher parents. She began piano lessons when she was five.
At Mount Holyoke College, she majored in piano performance and minored in English. “I didn’t think I was going to end up being a musician; I thought that writing was more important. I was a dedicated young poet. My growing awareness that poetry and music were inexorably linked made me change focus. I realized that music amplified the word.” Gilmore has maintained a private studio in New York since 1984 and thinks of herself as primarily a pianist.
She earned a master’s degree in vocal accompaniment from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Her first job after graduate school was as a rehearsal pianist for Washington Opera. “The light bulb went off. It was an epiphany for me. I was hooked on opera from then on. It spurred me to move to New York, which is the operatic epicenter of the universe.
“The ways that people acquire job skills as a vocal coach are diverse, eclectic, and fairly random,” Gilmore says. “Until fairly recently, there were no academic degrees that addressed the skill set, and people more or less found mentors to guide them. That was certainly the case for me.” Significant as a mentor for Gilmore was Joan Dornemann, prompter for the Metropolitan Opera Company.
“Young vocal coaches play in a lot of vocal studios to learn about voice,” Gilmore says. “If you’re playing 40 hours a week, you’re attending more lessons than a singer gets in a year. You learn from the best of teachers, and from the worst. You learn not only repertoire, but also what I call ‘many different vocal languages.’”
At Rutgers she has produced a dozen operas ranging in time from 1689 (Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”) to the 1950s (Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah”). They have come from most corners of the repertoire linguistically — English, Italian, French, and German.
With a touch of financial support, perhaps she could add Russian or Czech vehicles to her resume.
Flora, Mason Gross School of the Arts, Nicholas Music Center, 85 George Street, New Brunswick. Friday, November 19, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, November 21, 2 p.m. English ballad opera featuring Musica Raritana Period Instrument Orchestra. $10. 732-932-7511 or www.masongross.rutgers.edu.