Personalities | Carlisle Floyd | Modern Era | Opera
b. 1926, American
Born in South Carolina, writing and producing operas while on the faculty of Florida State University during the early 1950s – the locally popular Slow Dusk (1949) and The Fugitives (1951), which disappeared after its first performance – Floyd created the work that became his calling card. Written in seven months and presented at the university in 1955, Susannah was, according to noted critic Winthrop Sargeant following its 1956 New York City Opera debut, ‘probably the most moving and impressive opera to have been written in America – or anywhere else, as far as I am aware – since Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess’.
Susannah was a timely piece during an era of McCarthy-inspired communist witch-hunts. In the apocryphal biblical Book of Susannah, upon which Floyd based his libretto, the central character’s innocence is proven. Yet, empathizing with contemporary Americans who were not so lucky, Floyd ensured that Susannah is persecuted for a ‘sin’ that she did not commit.
The musical language of Susannah, while late Romantic in its harmonies and textures, is full of American folk references and Quaker hymns, reflecting the people and their times. Floyd subsequently enjoyed moderate success with his setting of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1958) and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1969), but other operas such as The Passion of Jonathan Wade (1962), Markheim (1966) and Bilby’s Doll (1976) attracted little interest.
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