In Search of Alice Flagg

February 2016
Written By: 
Leigh Cooper

Lowcountry native Joseph Kaz brings character to life in his Kennedy Center performance

If you’ve lived in the area for a while, you’ve probably heard of Alice Flagg. If you haven’t, here’s a brief run-down: According to folklore, Alice was an aristocratic young lady living with her mother and brother on their plantation estate in Murrells Inlet in the mid-1800s. She fell in love with a poor laborer the family disapproved of and was sent to boarding school in Charleston to separate the two, only to be retrieved by her brother soon after when Alice became morbidly ill. Sometime before her death, Alice’s brother discovered a ring on a ribbon tied around her neck and realized the lovers had secretly become engaged. Enraged, he threw her ring into the marsh. Alice died not long after, but legend has it she frequently returns in ghostly form to look for her lost ring.

This sad story and Alice’s forlorn haunting have captured the imaginations of many, including exciting young composer, Joseph R. Kaz, who wrote the opera Alice Flagg, which was recently performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Kaz grew up in Pawleys Island. He attended Waccamaw High School before enrolling in Ithaca College in New York, inspired to pursue his interest in music by his childhood mentors, including Dr. Charles Evans, Dr. Mark Babbitt and Suzanne Young. He’s now pursuing his Master’s Degree at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Kaz’s musical accomplishments are impressive for such a young artist. His work has been performed by ensembles such as the Long Bay Symphony and the University of Tennessee at Martin Marimba Choir. He’s won the 2010 Texas Orchestra Directors Association Composition Contest, the 2012 and 2013 Jack Downey Composition Prizes and the Metropolitan Wind Symphony’s North American Composition Competition.

So what made him choose Alice as his latest muse?

“When I was looking for inspiration to write a new opera, I struggled to find good source materials,” says Kaz. “I first looked to [the] Brothers Grimm stories … but then realized the best solution would be to use a story from my own backyard. The Lowcountry has many ghost stories and other folklore, but none more beloved (and potentially operatic) as the haunting love story of Alice Flagg. Love stories are the basis for many operas, and Alice Flagg is such a wonderful story because [it] has the extra sting of wanting something you can't have—a concept we are all familiar with.”

His opera premiered at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts this past September to a standing-room-only crowd. “The audience was very active and vibrant,” he says. “Laughs abounded at the humorous interactions between Alice and her ‘eccentric’ family, as well as somber silence at her death in the final scene.”

Kaz hopes to bring his opera home to the Grand Strand sometime in the summer of 2016. Until then, he has his sights set on another of our Lowcountry ghost stories: that of the Grey Man.