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From Grave to Stage

Written by Melissa Dellacato

Alice Flagg being performed onstage. Photos by Tanya Ackerman/Coastal Observer

Walking through the graveyard of All Saints Church in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, which was founded in 1767, one will find many century-old grave sites. But one large gravestone is different from the others. It lies flat on the ground with simply “Alice” engraved in bold letters. On any given day, the stone may be covered with flowers or pieces of jewelry left behind by visitors to the site.

This is the grave of Alice Flagg, a young aristocratic woman who died of malaria in the mid-1800s. Legend has it that she still haunts the area, searching for her lost engagement ring.

This popular local ghost story is the basis for Alice Flagg, the first opera Joseph Kaz ’14 composed after graduating from Ithaca College. Alice Flagg was first performed in September 2015 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., as part of the Page-to-Stage Festival, which features new works every year. The standing-room-only performance was so well attended that they had to turn people away.

Joseph Kaz

Kaz majored in composition at Ithaca College and worked closely with Dana Wilson, a professor of music theory, history, and composition. Early on, they discovered that Kaz had a knack for writing very dramatic music for voice. In his junior year, he wrote his first opera based on the Song of Solomon, a biblical text that celebrates love, and the Ithaca College Light Opera performed it in May 2013.

“It was a really great performance,” said Kaz. “It was enlightening to see just how exciting new opera can be and how difficult it is to accomplish. It took a lot of time, but it was well worth it.”

Inspired by the ghost story that originated from his hometown, Kaz continued to pursue his passion for opera after graduation with his work on Alice Flagg.

“When I knew I wanted to write a new opera, I had to think about what source material I should get,” he said. “I realized I had a great story right in my own backyard, and it had all of the elements it needed to be a great opera.”

Kaz first conducted thorough background research on the story and the history of the family.

The story goes that Alice fell madly in love with John Braddock, who worked as a lumberman. Alice’s family would not accept John as a suitor for their daughter because of his low-class status, so they sent Alice away to boarding school. Before Alice left, however, the couple became secretly engaged. While Alice was away at boarding school, she was bitten by a mosquito and contracted malaria. When she was sent home for medical care, her family discovered her engagement ring and threw it away.

With this story in mind, Kaz built a character analysis and crafted the libretto, the text of an opera.

“Keeping it too historically accurate isn’t the most exciting thing, so I had to make more things happen and make the characters deeper so that we as audience members connect with them and fall in love with them,” he said.

After the libretto was complete, Kaz wrote the music that brought the story together.

Kaz said that as a composer, watching his own performance come to life on stage in front of an audience is both stressful and exciting.

“It’s different for performers because when they’re on stage, ultimately they’re the ones controlling the situation,” he said. “As a composer, I’m out in the audience just watching, so I don’t get to control what happens anymore.”

Alice Flagg was also performed in May 2016 at the Winyah Auditorium in Georgetown, South Carolina, not too far from where the ghost story originated.

Kaz said he is grateful for the support he received while at IC and still thinks back to some of the fundamental lessons he learned.

“Ithaca taught me how to maintain a good relationship with the source material and make sure that the story is still told,” he said. “I don’t know where I’d be today without my composition teacher, my voice teacher, and the opera department. They really were great about teaching me how to go about doing all these things.”



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