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Arts: Composer turns legend into a different kind of ring cycle
By Charles Swenson
Young lovers. A secret engagement. An objectionable brother. Death. And, of course, a ghost. The legend of Alice Flagg is almost operatic.
Next month, it will be an opera. “Alice Flagg” will debut at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It’s the work of Joseph Kaz, a former Waccamaw High student now working on his post-graduate degree at the Catholic University. The performance will be part of the Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival that features readings and open rehearsals of plays and musicals.
“Alice Flagg” will be performed with a cast of five principals and a chorus accompanied on piano. Kaz is working on an orchestration for a sextet. “If someone comes along and really likes it, I could do a full score,” he said.
The Kennedy Center debut – Sept. 7 at 2:30 p.m., in the Russian Lounge – will give “Alice Flagg” a boost. It will be a staged reading without costumes, but with “as much staging as we can possibly do,” Kaz said. It’s been in rehearsal since July.
Alice of the Hermitage is a story made popular by the late Clarke Willcox. Alice was the brother of Dr. Allard Flagg, who owned Wachesaw Plantation. She died in 1849 at 15. The legend says she became engaged to an unsuitable beau – a Northern artist, a turpentine merchant – while at school in Charleston and they were forced to keep it secret. When she contracted malaria, her brother brought her home to the Hermitage. The ring she wore on a ribbon around her neck was lost. She died of the fever calling for her ring.
The legend further holds that the ghost of Alice will tug at women’s rings, particularly if they walk backward 13 times around the stone marked “Alice” in the Flagg family plot at All Saints Cemetery. (That in spite of the fact that Alice was buried at Cedar Hill in Murrells Inlet.)
“It’s a story I grew up with,” Kaz said. “I knew I wanted to write something with American flair.”
He started work on the opera a year ago, beginning with the libretto. “It’s not my forté, but it’s always great to work on,” he said. He stuck with the patterns of 19th century speech as much as possible and also drew on the work of the Charleston poet Henry Timrod, known as the poet laureate of the Confederacy.
The opera is “contemporary, but not out of the classical box,” Kaz said. He developed musical themes for each principal character that provides structure for the 85-minute opera. And it does follow certain conventions. “The title character has to be the soprano. The hero has to be a tenor,” Kaz said.
During the process he got regular critiques in his music composition class.
He cast the opera from students and colleagues at the Catholic University, where he is also a graduate assistant, and musicians he met in Washington. He is also the tenor section leader and a soloist at the Church of the Epiphany. “It’s an opportunity for performers to add to their resumés,” he said.
He would like to bring “Alice Flagg” home to South Carolina. His parents live at Pawleys Island; his mother Troi is an agent at DeBordieu Real Estate, his father Jeff is general manager at the DeBordieu Club. Kaz would have to pitch the project to opera companies in the state or Opera Carolina in Charlotte. “Classical does have an uphill battle, especially new classical music,” he said. “Why should I listen to this when I can listen to Mozart?”