This October, Victor Herbert’s operetta “Eileen” will turn 100 years old. In anticipation of that celebration, and as a culmination of its third season, the Victor Herbert Renaissance Project LIVE! (VHRPL) will present the work. The two performances on April 25 and 26 will also feature the first time that the New Victor Herbert Orchestra debuts.
Starting From Scratch
The VHRPL is the brainchild of the artistic director Alyce Mott, who is also an expert on the composer. She first discovered Herbert back in 1995 while working with the Little Orchestra Society of New York. In 2009, she launched VHSource.com to showcase original performance materials.
“He was the foundation of the American musical theater from a ‘good music’ standpoint,” she told OperaWire during an exclusive interview before emphasizing that throughout his career, Herbert, who was also a professional cellist and married to an opera singer, composed 43 operettas, two operas and several orchestral works, most famously his second cello concerto.
In 2014, Mott would go on to help produce a revival of one of Herbert’s two operas, “Natoma,” which premiered in Philadelphia in 1911. Unfortunately, that work was widely considered one of the biggest flops of all time, performances of the work essentially non-existent.
“We did it exactly the way he wrote it,” she noted before revealing that the showcase was a massive success. “We realized that we had just heard a miracle. I had people come up to me from Rodgers and Hammerstein and several other sources tell me that it was the most important moment of their musical lives.”
That gave Mott the confidence to look toward producing something dedicated to her favorite composer.
For its first two years, VHRPL put on shows with piano accompaniment. But she really wanted to find a way to get the works performed the way they were intended, with an orchestra.
She knew that she couldn’t start with a big orchestra so she sought out a way to establish a union contract.
“Good union members can, in a few hours, can put together amazing sounds that would take amateurs weeks,” Mott noted.
And from that effort came the New Victor Herbert Orchestra.
A Political Work
“Eileen” might be best known to mainstream audiences for the number “Thine Alone,” which was famously recorded by iconic tenor Mario Lanza, but its context is far more political. In fact, the work was written in the throes of World War I and after the Easter Rising, an Irish insurrection that resulted in a massacre at the hands of the British Army. The operetta itself was written with tremendous patriotic fervor.
“It’s a great story and it has beautiful music, but it is a PR piece. Someone said in a review, ‘If you weren’t Irish before, you’ll be Irish when you walk out,’” Mott noted about “Eileen.”
“I think ‘Eileen’ highlights a very modern conflict between personal relationships and passion. Barry O’Day dedicates his entire life to Ireland and the fight for his country’s freedom. When he falls in love with Eileen, Barry’s passion never wavers, causing the young woman to question his feelings. In the end, both characters come to realize these sentiments can co-exist and, in fact, support one another,” added tenor Tom Carle, who will play the role of Barry O’Day in VHRPL’s revival. “Barry O’Day’s active, driven nature can also inspire a population plagued with indecision. Barry has very clear goals and never second-guesses himself. Instead, he convinces the rest of the world his goals are virtuous and attainable.”
But “Eileen” is also unique for other reasons. “He went out of his way to say that he did not use any Irish tunes. He wrote in the vein of Irish music,” Mott noted. “He didn’t redo any songs for this piece. This is a completely Irish score without regurgitating a single Irish song.
“It’s probably his best score. It’s just song after song that flows with emotion from the heart,” Mott concluded.