Publisher Alyce Mott of VHSource, LLC, a source of original digital performance materials for Victor Herbert, was first made aware of the Victor Herbert grand opera Natoma when Glen W. Clugston invited her and her creative partner, conductor Dino Anagnost of the Little Orchestra Society of New York,  to hear a final dress rehearsal for a lightly reduced performance with piano accompaniment of the work that Clugston was taking up to the Lucille Lortel White Barn Theatre in Norwalk, Connecticut in 2000. Clugston had spent at least 3-4 years prior to 2000 researching and collecting materials for the production. Encouraged by the audience reaction to the White Barn presentation, Clugston began searching for an individual to restore the full scores and applied to the Victor Herbert Foundation for funds to hire such a person.  Financial quotes for restoration done by professionals ran into the tens of thousands of dollars and placed it well beyond both the Foundation’s giving limits and Clogston’s personal pocketbook.  He did find three different individuals who were willing to tackle an aria each to explore the possibilities, but no one was willing to move forward without substantial funding.

During the summer of 2004 Mott and Clugston made a three day trip to the Library of Congress in Washington DC to pour over, account for, and inventory every original handwritten score for the opera located in a Tams Witmark Collection (1974) within the library. The object of that trip was to be sure that Clugston had all available materials, had not overlooked anything and that there were no hidden orchestra parts within the boxes. One of the results of that trip was the placing of the scores in order by Clugston and the creation of a nine page inventory by Mott which would allow anyone to easily find whatever portions of the opera for which they might be looking . In the Fall of the same year, Mott located a complete set of parts for the opera. Joy turned to dismay as each part had been significantly cut with brown paper and paste.  Cost of restoration of those parts would have equaled the computerization restoration of the full scores. For the next 7 years both Clugston and VHS remained on the lookout for an individual who was competent with Finale or Sibelius, had the patience to deal with reading 100 year old handwritten scores, and the passion to understand the importance of returning this major American opera to American audiences – all without charging a fortune.

Enter conductor/composer Peter Hilliard who resides in Glenside Pennsylvania. In 2011, the nearby village of Willow Grove was approaching its 300 year celebration and the 115th anniversary of the Willow Grove Park, one of America’s oldest amusement parks. Willow Grove Park had been a music mecca for the entire East coast from roughly 1896 well into the 1970s. In particular John Philip Sousa’s band and Victor Herbert’s orchestra were in residence almost every year for much the first two or three decades of the 20th century. The celebration committee decided to recreate a Sousa concert and a Herbert concert as part of its May 2011 celebration.

Hilliard was specifically asked to recreate a Victor Herbert Orchestra concert from June 30, 1920. This concert featured selections from Eileen, The Fortune Teller, Natoma, and The Red Mill, as originally performed. Hilliard went to great pains in 2011 to recreate each Herbert number exactly as it was performed in 1920 and was able to find performance materials for all except the end of the concert – a portion of Act III of Herbert’s grand opera Natoma.  Hilliard contacted VHSource about obtaining such parts only to find out they did not exist except in handwritten full score format. That situation would necessitate entering that portion of Act III needed into the computer (restoring). Having several months before the parts were needed, Hilliard agreed to do the restore. Mott assisted Hilliard in obtaining the handwritten scores for that portion of the opera, and Hilliard began work on the needed performance materials for a May 21, 2011 concert in Willow Grove.

Mott attended the reconstructed concert in Willow Grove, and after the concert as Hilliard and Mott were discussing the very successful event, Hilliard casually asked what other short Herbert work he might restore. He had learned so much by working on the needed portion of Act III utilized that evening, that he felt he wanted to do more. Before parting, Mott gave Hilliard an assurance that she would look at smaller works needing restoration, but also suggested that if he really wanted to make a major contribution to American music then he should at least think about tackling the entire opera. There was a warning that this was no small task with no real prospect of any sort of monetary remuneration. Indeed, it would be far more an act of passion for saving beautiful music and an important early American 20th century work. However, there was a New York individual who could be of immense help, and of course, VHSource would offer as much assistance in gaining the needed raw material as possible. Within two weeks, Hilliard had committed to the project, been introduced to Glen Clugston and his vast store of photocopies of full scores for the opera, and begun the work of finishing Act III.

Over the winter of 2011-2012, VHSource teamed with Concert Operetta Theatre of Philadelphia as a fiscal sponsor, and a proposal was made to the Victor Herbert Foundation which was now under new leadership. This time the VHF approved a grant to support both the actual restoration and the proofing of the resulting scores. A second grant was sought in the spring of 2013 as the number of hours put in by both men soared towards the thousands. These two grants were only the second grants made solely for restoration  by VHF in its existence. Incorporated in 1969, the foundation has primarily supported performances over its history.  The final note of the opera was entered into the computer on Friday, August 16, 2013, roughly two and a half years from its initiation with final proofing, corrections, formatting and parts extraction still to come. Hilliard and Clugston had poured over a total of  900+ handwritten 114 year old scores created in Victor Herbert’s hand during 1909. The result is 640 clean, usable and very readable modern scores from which orchestral parts can now be easily created.

It was been determined that even though the mechanical work was almost done, the next step would be to add live musicians and a conductor to the project in an activity known as a “play down” or “reading.”  Live human beings reading and playing individual parts are far better at catching any remaining errors or misunderstandings than the best computer or the weariest sets of eyes.  To that purpose, Mott, now also artistic director of a new producing organization – Victor Herbert Renaissance Project LIVE! – decided to produce just such  a play down of the entire opera in a three day event scheduled for July 11, 12, & 13, 2014 in the brand new DiMenna Center for Classical Music located at 450 W. 37th Street, New York, NY. The first rehearsal day, Friday, July 11, 2014, will allow the orchestra to play through all instrumental portions of the entire work. The second rehearsal day, Saturday, July 12, 2014,  all voices will be added to the experience (principal singers in the morning with chorus added in the afternoon) for an audience of 100 music/opera students. The third and last day of the event, Sunday, July 13, 2014, will feature a simple run through of the entire work without stops for an audience of music/opera professionals, with only 200 seats available, both invited and first come, first served. A Q & A will follow the Sunday event to gage audience and performers reaction to the work.

While reviewers in 1911 did not particularly like the libretto, they also had a strong political loyalty to the Metropolitan Opera Company. There was high praise for the music but the form and story of the opera took a real beating. A sympathetic treatment of a love triangle between an American naval officer, a young Spanish woman and a native American woman simply did not sit well with critics, although it certainly did not stop audiences from giving the opera a run of 38 performances. It is definitely not a conventional 1911 grand opera – but then Herbert was not a conventional composer.  The production team is very excited to hear the entire opera as written with the ears of the 21st century. No one has any real expectation as to what the work with actually sound like.  Was it ahead of its time? Was the language of English just too foreign to America’s well established, comfortable Italian/German opera goer?

Contact producer Alyce Mott at amott@vhrplive.org to reserve your seat at this one of a kind, historic re-acquaintance with the first American grand opera.

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