Professor Gerald Muller has been called the Leonard Bernstein of Montgomery County.
The apt comparison of the local composer, arranger, teacher and accompanist to the world-famous composer, conductor and educator whose centennial is being celebrated this year was made by Dr. Harry N. Dunstan, founding artistic director of the American Center for Puccini Studies.
Founder of Montgomery College’s Music Department, Dr. Muller was the “driving force” behind the (Robert E. Parilla) Performing Arts Center on the Rockville Campus, added Kay Krekow, Dunstan’s wife and managing director of the Derwood-based organization that promotes opera — especially the works of Giacomo Puccini and his contemporaries – via performances and educational programs.
Dr. Muller also demonstrated his pedagogic skills as music director at Theological College, the National Seminary of Catholic University of America. He retired last year after 17 years of service.
Now working on various projects at his family’s Richards Hundred Natural Farm in Bowie, 86-year-old Muller can look back on a rich musical legacy. But he also can look forward. The multifaceted musician has the satisfaction of seeing an opera he wrote years ago re-staged – and filmed, too.
That opera, “Vignettes in Passion,” a 30-minute chamber work, debuted in October 1977. Brandeis University performed it recently, and this summer, the Puccini center sponsored two performances and the filming.
It was the first time an opera has been filmed for broadcast in Montgomery County – “and the work of a local composer at that,” Krekow said. “We did two full runs of the opera that afternoon (at Montgomery Community Media in Rockville), one with each cast.”
Three sopranos made up each cast — Chloe Fairbanks, Doris Makari and Jenna Stein; and Bobi Jean Andros, Sarah Heisler and Josi Suslov. Dunstan directed both performances, with Krekow as accompanist.
“We’ve backdated the action to the 1950s, with colorful, beautiful dresses, in a more opulent time,” Krekow said. “It’s a charming, silly opera, but the music is sumptuous, fully operatic.”
Each of the young women is expecting a visit respectively from a Charles, Charley and Chuck, and each presents a “wildly different” view of the man, whom we never see, said Dunstan. “The ending has a twist.”
In addition, Dunstan interviewed Muller as well as his fellow composer-student Maurice Saylor, the opera’s engraver who converted the handwritten manuscript into a readable, professional score.
Growing up in Clifton, N.J., with his family then moving to Wilmington and then Claymont, Del., Muller was enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music — as a piano major of Irwin Freundlich — before graduating from high school. “Those years at Juilliard were the most formative in providing the support I needed as my career developed,” Muller said. “I switched my major to composition, studying with Vincent Persichetti.”
Muller looked back at his history with Montgomery College (MC), where he was hired in “1965 as the third faculty member of an expanding music program to be in Rockville — moving from the Takoma Park Campus that fall to a very muddy, five-building complex that did not yet have any music facilities.
Equipped with a master’s and doctor of musical arts degrees in composition from the Catholic University of America’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, Muller became the college’s choral director, and theory and keyboard faculty. In a short time, the students began pouring in, and the college had to keep finding more spaces.
Department chair Mildred Nichols wanted an opera to be produced during the opening of the Rockville Campus’ state-of-the-art performing arts theater. So, in the spring of 1967, the college produced “Die Fledermaus.”
“This was indeed the beginning of the next decades of opera, musical theater and amazing music making,” Muller said. “Not only did we produce several productions a year, but (also we) served many K through 12 audiences, bringing them to the college for morning productions.
In addition, a program called Musical Theatre Production was initiated in the summer of 1967. It still thrives, now known as Summer Dinner Theatre.
A Montgomery College colleague challenged him with a dare — that since he was going to the roots of opera, he should write one for the Bicentennial. “And I did,” Muller said. “It was produced both at the college and in D.C. in 1976. Out of that experience, I realized that the opportunity for young voices, particularly women’s voices, needed easy but musical, short workshop productions. And so, ‘Vignettes’ was written.”
While people may think of opera as music, it is really the “coming together of most of the arts — technical stagecraft, drama, character development, movement, fantastic voices and a style that develops an emotional base — serious, funny, weird,” Muller explained. “I believe the style of ‘Vignettes’ is funny, but musical and slightly modern.”
At Dunstan’s suggestion, Muller has written a sequel to “Vignettes.” Titled “A Sudsy Secret,” it needs some revisions, he said.
Muller’s other works include an opera “Joshua,” and the first of a proposed three-act opera based on Mary Surratt, the first woman to be hung by the United States government that has been produced several times in the area. He also co-wrote “Ichabod Crane,” a “serious but melodic operetta format, lots of music, some dialogue — but vocal lines based on operatic style.”
Muller’s fondest memories seem to lie in the lives he influenced. “I am constantly amazed and full of gratitude when I meet up with former students and colleagues, and the conversation almost always turns to their years at Montgomery College.
“I have been blessed with a very long life, a wonderful wife, four kids and five grandkids and am still able to make music. [I’m] a very lucky guy.”