‘Simply A Giant’: An Interview with Alyce Mott of the Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!
Irish-American composer Victor Herbert shaped the early American musical stage like no other. The NI Opera Studio will bring his operetta The Enchantress to the region from 6 – 8 December. NI Opera dramaturg Judith Wiemers spoke to Alyce Mott, the founder and Artistic Director of the New York-based Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live! (VHRS Live!), which has lovingly restored and staged some of the composer’s forgotten pieces in recent years.
JW: What is Victor Herbert’s most distinctive quality?
AM: That is really difficult and would take multiple pages to do justice to, but his best qualities as a composer would be 1) melody and 2) ability to orchestrate his own work. Melodies flowed out of this man uninterrupted for 40 years. He wrote 45 produced operettas/musical comedies produced on Broadway and every single one is filled with “ear worms” or “ear candy”: melodies that you walk out of the theatre humming and you can’t get them out of head for several weeks. Examples from The Enchantress are, “Art Is Calling for Me” or “Land of My Own Romance”. Victor Herbert was also one of the very few American composers who orchestrated his music himself, rather than giving a third party the control of the overall sound.
JW: What was Herbert’s relationship with Ireland?
AM: Victor’s mother was Fanny Lover, daughter of Samuel Lover (1797 – 1868), a major Irish poet, composer, painter, and novelist born in Dublin. His father was August Herbert, a German (we think) who was not married to Fanny at the time. That makes him half Irish. Victor was born on the Isle of Jersey off the coast of Normandy. It is a fact that Victor Herbert never set foot in Ireland. However, young Victor spent 4 years living with his maternal grandfather, Samuel Lover who lived outside of London at the time and fell totally in love with everything Irish, especially her music from constant exposure to the friends and acquaintances who streamed through Samuel Lover’s home. He was the single loudest and most famous champion of Ireland in America from 1886 when he arrived until 1924 when he passed away. His Irish music compositions are exquisite, particularly the Irish Rhapsody. Americans have always called him an Irish American. His Ireland-themed operettas include Princess Pat (1915) and Eileen (1917), and among others.
Announcement for Princess Pat, produced by VHRP LIVE!
JW: How have the productions of your revival project been received by American audiences?
AM: Amazingly well! Our audiences are growing constantly. We just began our sixth season with performances of Herbert’s 1914 The Debutante. I have been managing the Herbert revival here in the states since 1995 and the numbers of performances of Victor Herbert music is growing steadily. For many decades about all that was performed was his “March of the Toys” from Babes In Toyland. VHRP LIVE! has now reintroduced ten operettas/musical comedies, along with five concerts of Herbert songs. More and more orchestras are performing The Irish Rhapsody and his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. Babes In Toyland is produced eight to ten times every year, and more and more productions of Eileen; Sweethearts; Naughty Marietta; The Red Mill; and The Enchantress are popping up across the country. America is remembering.
JW: Why are the Victor Herbert pieces so rarely performed in Europe?AM: That goes back to the very beginning of his work. He immigrated in 1886 with his wife Therese Forester from Stuttgart, Germany. In 1886, as far as Europe was concerned, there were the German composers of operetta, specifically Offenbach and Johann Strauss II, and in Britain there were Gilbert and Sullivan. Herbert’s librettos could never compete with Gilbert & Sullivan’s, thus the British in particular rarely liked his work. His only real success in Europe came with The Wizard of Nile, which was taken to Germany in 1896.
JW: What is Herbert’s significance for the development of the musical theatre genre in America of the early 20th century?
AM: Victor Herbert was quite simply a giant of the American musical theatre. He laid the foundation for high-quality music and real pit orchestras in American musical theatre. Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin grew up listening to his compositions. Because he orchestrated all his own work, Herbert was the only composer capable of writing for a full orchestra in theatre, including the famous Ziegfeld Follies. With his passing in 1924, there was a major void in theatre composition until 1927, when Robert Russell Bennett teamed with Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern for Show Boat. The 1920s produced no real masterpieces musically.
The ‘Enchantress’ libretto has the strong feel of a woman’s touch:
Victor Herbert’s librettist Frédérique “Fred” De Grésac
JW: Can you tell us anything about the creative partnership between Herbert and the writer team Frédérique De Grésac and Harry B. Smith?
AM: Frédérique De Grésac (1879 – 1943), better known in America as Fred, was one of two female Herbert collaborators and a representative of a particular type of female writer, who felt the need to hide the fact that they were indeed women in order to succeed. She was married to international operatic baritone, Victor Maurel (1848 – 1923), a star of the 1880s to 1900. They moved to New York City sometime prior to 1904. She was 31 years younger than her husband. She contributed the French dialogue in 1906 for the Herbert operetta of The Red Mill, libretto by Henry Blossom, but wasn’t credited. In 1911 De Gresac created the libretto (lyrics by Harry B. Smith) for Herbert’s The Enchantress (1911) As I am sure you have noticed, this libretto has the strong feel of a woman’s touch. In 1913 she co-wrote Sweethearts with Harry B. Smith (lyrics by Robert B. Smith). This operetta opened in the New Amsterdam Theatre on September 8, 1913. It has always been my contention that Ms. De Grésac wrote far more of this libretto than Harry B. Smith, but again, felt the need to have his name attached to the show, as he was a veritable star librettist in New York at the time. Smith was the most frequent Herbert librettist, but he was not a terribly good one. He was, however, an excellent lyricist. In 1922, De Grésac’s is the sole librettist listed for Victor Herbert’s Orange Blossoms with lyrics by Buddy G. De Sylva. Herbert was a champion of women-driven shows, and he collaborated with women during his entire career. His most famous female collaborator was Rida Johnson Young, who wrote libretto and lyrics for Naughty Marietta (1910).
JW: Many thanks for the enlightening insights!
AM: Thank you for bringing Victor to Northern Ireland!
NI Opera Studio member David Corr as Regent Milock in The Enchantress.
The first “Vivien” in The Enchantress: Kitty Gordon.