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Welcome to the Hotel Eden!

by Roger Brunyate

The Angels   Welcome to the Hotel Eden—
A happy day, Shalom!
It’s really just like Paradise—
You’ll feel like you’re at home.

Hotel Eden
at Theatre Project, April–May, 2005

Thus the opening chorus of Henry Mollicone’s Hotel Eden. The Peabody Opera Theatre last performed the opera in spring 1992, in the Friedberg Concert Hall. This time the Peabody Chamber Opera will be presenting the work at Theatre Project, whose smaller, more intimate space will make the perfect venue, since in this opera the familiar bible stories are reduced down to a very human scale indeed. This music theater piece with text by the Hollywood scriptwriter Judith Fein takes three stories from Genesis and re-imagines them in a Palm Beach hotel. With its underlying themes of marriage and the redefinition of the relationship between married couples, Hotel Eden is a feminist work, centered around strong women, women who realize that they can be strong, or women who discover that they must be strong.

Lilith, by John Collier, 1884  
Painting by John Collier, 1884
Hotel Eden began life as a short one-act piece, Lilith, completed in 1985. The story is that of Adam and Eve, on a perpetual honeymoon in the luxurious Hotel Eden (“It’s Paradise here!”). It is a male chauvinist’s dream. Theirs is the perfect love, proclaimed in a lyrical opening duet. Eve is the perfect wife, catering to Adam’s every need. They are waited on by three Angels, in the incarnations of waitress, cleaning girl, and bellhop. But there is a snake in this garden: Adam has been married before. The idea comes from Jewish legend in the Kabbalah. Adam’s first wife, Lilith, refusing to accept her subordinate role, has been banished from the garden, and the more compliant Eve created in her stead. But now Lilith comes to visit Eve in the Eden Hotel. She has become a prostitute, preying on men, maltreating her children as Adam had maltreated her. Eve’s sympathies go out to Lilith, but her paradise is shattered. She leaves the hotel. Adam is told that his room is no longer available, and leaves also. The Angels contrive a reunion between the couple, but the rest is up to them. Somehow they have to piece together a new relationship based upon honesty, equality, and the knowledge of the good and evil in themselves.

Lilith came to the attention of Robert Darling, who, as director of the Central City Opera Festival in Colorado, had commissioned Henry Mollicone’s first opera, The Face on the Barroom Floor, in 1976. He suggested that composer and librettist add two other Genesis stories to that of Adam and Eve, setting them all in the same hotel. So Lilith, with its young married couple, became the first act of the completed opera. The second act deals with the tired, twenty-year marriage between Noah and his wife. The final act, about Abraham and Sara, shows a couple in their golden years. The full opera was premiered by Opera San Jose, California, in 1989.

The closing moments of LILITH
The triangle of Lilith, Eve, and Adam
Diana Burson, Faith Okkema, and Timothy Bentch at Peabody, 1992

By the start of the Mrs. Noah act, the Hotel Eden is in disrepair. The tarnished Angels — a Repairman who doesn’t do any work, a Chef who tells the guests to send out for Chinese, and an Emcee concerned only with her fingernails — sit around reading People and the National Enquirer. It is New Year’s Eve. Admiral Noah, recently retired from the navy is brought to the hotel by his wife for what she clearly intends to be a romantic second honeymoon. But things go from bad to worse. Noah hits the bottle, and his exasperated wife goes down alone to party with the Angels. Tired of always being referred to as “Mrs. Noah,” she insists that they use her real name: Rosalind. A disco rock scene ensues (“Roz is hot!”), which is interrupted by water dripping through the ceiling; the Admiral, above, is almost drowning in his bath. They all rush up to save him, but the water shorts the electrical circuits and the hotel is plunged into darkness. Then a stroke of magic: the emergency lighting comes on, refracted by the water into rainbow hues. In the hush that follows, Noah approaches Rosalind with new respect, and they agree to start again. Meanwhile, the Angels get to work straightening out the hotel.

The climax of the nightclub scene  
Disaster strikes the nightclub
Peabody Opera Theatre, 1992
The third act, Sara, is less about the relationship between Sara and Abraham than that between Sara and her maid, Hagar. As in the Bible, Sara has been childless and has agreed that Abraham should father a child on Hagar, who worships him. Although still ambivalent about her feelings, Sara agrees to make Hagar’s son, Ishmael, their only heir. But then the Angels — now a doctor and two nurses — enter and announce that Sara is pregnant. In a rapid-fire farce sequence, Sara and Abraham choose a name for the boy — Isaac — and before we know it she is in the midst of labor! Suddenly the proceedings are interrupted by Hagar. Isaac cannot be born and take Ishmael’s heritage from him. In the Bible, as we know, Isaac is indeed born, to become the founder of the Jewish people, while Ishmael is banished to the wilderness, where tradition names him as the ancestor of the Arab race. In the opera, however, the Angels bring about an understanding between the two women, and at least the possibility of peaceful coexistence between Isaac, Ishmael, and their descendants.

  Henry Mollicone
Henry Mollicone
  Judith Fein
Judith Fein
Like that other “M” composer, Mozart, Mollicone has taken the popular music of his time and transformed it to his own ends, creating a work which is fun to listen to, but whose end result is serious and deeply moving. And Hotel Eden certainly is fun! Born in 1946, Henry Mollicone is witty, and irrepressibly irreverent. The score abounds with markings such as “Miami Beach tempo”, “Ipanema feel”, and “Quiet hospital blues”. The final page bears a happy face with ears, and the inscription “3/14/88, San Jose, Calif., Home of the Prune”! Judith Fein’s libretto matches the music in wit, as for example in the advice given to the laboring Sara by the Doctor and Nurses:
Try to think of nice distractions
When you’re having those contractions:
Think of Caribbean beaches,
Think of mangoes, guava, peaches.
When you feel those inner foments,
Try to think of happy moments… etc.

Mollicone can write tunes of all kinds. Oddly enough, though, it is not the upbeat pop numbers of the jazz Angels that stick in the memory, but the moments of pure singing, when everything seems to stop. The miracle of the rainbow when Noah and Rosalind are reconciled goes far beyond a mere trick of lighting; it is a musical miracle also — a love duet of such simplicity that it catches at the heart. Out of this develops one of those reflective ensembles at which this composer excels. “Did the Director know this would happen?” asks the Repairman; “I wonder…”

…I wonder if He knows how hard a task it is
To bare our hearts and live a life that’s modeled after His?…
I wonder why it takes all our years upon the earth
To open up our hearts to love, and truly know its worth?

The unforgettable melody to which this is set recurs in the third act as Abraham recalls the early days of his marriage to Sara. From there to the end of the opera, it reverberates as a touchstone of humanity, simplicity, and love regained after so much turmoil. It is at moments like these that one feels the comparison with Mozart may not be altogether far-fetched.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Peabody News in February, 1992.

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