Neely Bruce is itching to pick up his baton to conduct Flora, An Opera, and rightly so. As the first ballad opera performed on this continent and the first professional musical theater in English-speaking North America, it holds a special place in his area of expertise — 18th Century American music.
“I’m one of the few people who could have done this,” says Bruce, who has also orchestrated the piece. “I’m a composer rather than a musicologist.” He says he was delighted to be approached by Spoleto USA to recreate the piece for a modern audience. This was a great challenge. Flora had been out of print for more than 250 years, with only a vocal score and 18 pages of music still in existence.
“It was a big job,” admits Bruce, a 66-year-old Professor of Music and American Studies at Wesleyan University. “But it was fun from the get-go. I began to do this and it flowed like water.” Flora is a 15-year-old orphan with an inheritance of $8,000, a vast amount in the 1730s. Unfortunately, her greedy uncle Sir Thomas controls her dough and her destiny. Her only hope is Tom Friendly, a young man who wants to marry her. Sir Thomas keeps Flora locked up tighter than Rapunzel’s buns, so she sends a letter to Tom via Hob, a local country boy. Hob is an important character who whistles, sings, dances, and fights his way through the show.
“I like Flora because it’s extremely funny with a strong sense of language,” says Bruce, “and it’s quite salacious, with stock comedy situations — some of them very broad, almost slapstick.” Although Bruce has stuck close to the original text, he has made some concessions to modern taste by making the characters more balanced and real. “In one of Flora’s arias, she’s in two states of mind,” he says. Internal conflict was nonexistent for ballad opera characters of the period, but Bruce has added a Mozart-referencing song that gives Flora more depth. “That doesn’t happen in the other, more straightforward tunes,” he notes, “although they have different strains or tempos.”
Bruce’s retooling of Flora is in keeping with the genre. During its original run it morphed to reflect popular tastes. The growing status of The Beggar’s Opera led to Flora being reworked, according to Bruce, “to make it more political and salty.” In his hands, this update should have just the right amount of scholarly depth and accessible fun.