Bluegrass Opera director Lorne Dechtenberg was surprised at what he was being offered.
Ellen Bacon, the widow of esteemed composer Ernst Bacon, sent Dechtenberg a note asking whether he and his company would be interested in presenting her late husband's 1940s opera A Tree on the Plains. What's more, it would be the premiere professional production of the work, which has had a few academic and concert productions over the decades.
"Out of the blue, she emailed me one day and said, 'I heard that you do a lot of new work for the Bluegrass Opera. Would you be willing to take a look at this piece I found of Ernie's?'" Dechtenberg says. "I knew who Ernst Bacon was, because I had coached some of his songs. I said, 'The Ernst Bacon? Yeah! I'd love to take a look at it.'"
Ellen Bacon was not necessarily expecting such an enthusiastic response.
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Since her husband's death in 1990 at age 91, Ellen Bacon, who lives in Syracuse, N.Y., has been a proponent of his work, trying to get it in front of conductors and musicians for performances and recordings. Her biggest success thus far was Leonard Slatkin's performance and recording of Bacon's Ford's Theatre with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in 2009.
To keep in touch with the orchestral professionals, she subscribed to a Web site called OrchestraList.net.
"Way back in October, there was a post from Lorne Dechtenberg, a call for scores," says Bacon, who was 26 when she married the composer, who was then 70. "He said he was looking for new operas, and I said, 'Oh well. I have nothing to lose. I'll tell him about this opera and see what happens.'"
What happened was that Bluegrass Opera set about putting up production of A Tree on the Plains to show the opera in the best possible light.
The world premiere by a late composer also will be the Bluegrass Opera's first production at the Lexington Opera House and its first casting out-of-town singers. The production will be recorded.
"Ellen's wish was that we could help there to be more performances of it." Dechtenberg says. "I said two things can help that to happen. One is let us do our very best with the singing and the acting and everything else that this piece really did call for to happen. The second was to let us make a recording, because the only records that existed were some old clay baked records from the early-'40s readings, and then there was a reel-to-reel from the '60s, but it only had excerpts, the most catchy numbers."
The Ernst Bacon Society will co-release a recording of this weekend's performances.
"That way, people can hear it and say, 'Oh, that's how it goes,'" Dechtenberg says.
The opera was first performed in 1942, with music by Bacon and a libretto by fellow Pulitzer winner Paul Horgan. Bacon says she has been told that there might have been producers or someone connected with Rogers and Hammerstein's eventual hit Oklahoma! in the audience for that initial performance at Columbia University, although she cannot verify that. There is an Oklahoma-esque quality to the show, which is set in a rural Western community during the Dust Bowl. With a heavy dose of drought, poverty and urban-rural tension, it also has echoes of Depression-era author John Steinbeck.
Bacon says the opera fell out of sight through a combination of her husband's work habits, lack of self-promotion and a classical music world that turned to the avant garde in the mid-20th century.
"He was always on to the next project," Bacon says of her prolific husband. "He was not one to try to do very much promotion at all."
After her husband's death, Bacon says, she didn't put a lot of energy behind promoting Tree because the score was in some disarray and she knew it was a demanding work in terms of talent and resources required. She concentrated on the orchestral works by the composer, who won what would become the Pulitzer Prize for music.
"It requires musicians who can do opera but can also act Broadway," Dechtenberg says. "It also requires real dancing, and you can't get that at a university. They call for you to have a 9-year-old tap dancer and a rainstorm on the stage. They dreamt this up like a film.
"They thought it up in such detailed terms that it's very hard to do."
Through years of cuts and adjustments for previous presentations of the show, Bacon says, the score was out of sorts. Bacon, who won't be able to attend this weekend's performance, gives Dechtenberg credit for helping to pull together a new definitive version of the opera. The director was more than happy to do it.
Dechtenberg says, "It's a big deal, because it's the unearthing of a Pulitzer Prize winner's work."