Talk with Carlisle Floyd

American Icon: Carlisle Floyd Talks About Life and Opera

On February 24, 1955, when the final curtain came down on the world premiere of Susannah, Carlisle Floyd’s life changed forever. Until then, the young pianist and assistant professor at Florida State University had no plans to devote himself to composing operas. But, with that moment, the disparate influences and events of his life came together to make his destiny impossible to ignore.


Carlisle Floyd was born in 1926 in Latta, South Carolina. From an early age, he demonstrated creative leanings. At four, he showed exceptional skill in drawing; by seven he was writing short stories. At eleven, he turned his focus to the piano, though practicing had to compete with daily chores and football, basketball, baseball, and boxing. Carlisle’s father, Carlisle, Sr., known as Jack, was a Methodist minister and the family obeyed Christian doctrine (as interpreted by Jack) to the letter. Church attendance was mandatory. There was no reading the newspaper funny pages on Sunday. Alcohol and cigarettes were forbidden. Idleness was a sin and work came first, though Carlisle’s mother, Ida, put down her foot when it came to prioritizing piano-practicing time.

By the time Carlisle was in high school, Ida recognized her son’s talent and convinced Jack to trade in their old piano for a better model. Jack drove Carlisle eighty-five miles from Bethune, where the family had moved, to Orangeburg for weekly lessons, despite gas rationing imposed because of World War II. Around this time, Floyd saw his first opera, Carmen, performed by the touring Charles L. Wagner Company. He was far more impressed by Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano recital in Columbia a few weeks later.

Floyd earned a scholarship to Converse College, where he studied with Francis Bacon. “He came of that group in the 1930s and ‘40s,” said Floyd, “that we might say today was militantly American, which happens when a country is trying to establish its musical independence. He felt we should develop our own culture out of our own materials. I was indoctrinated with that early on and it never occurred to me to question it.” Bacon gave Floyd the best advice a young composer could hear: “Write what you want to write.”

On his first trips to New York in the 1940s and ‘50s, Floyd took in original Broadway productions of Inge’s Picnic, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, among many others. “I loved the theater,” he said. “They all were writing in this super realistic manner, yet they were poetic also. I wanted to emulate that.

“Opera never attracted me in those days,” said Floyd. “I didn’t like how it was done. drama had lost out. It was dominated by European artists; Americans were considered second-class. Yet, American singers started a revolution in opera, many of them under the tutelage of Boris Goldovsky [impresario, teacher, and founder of the New England Opera Theater]. Boris made singers conscious of their acting. That was part of the new emphasis on drama and theatrical realism. Up to that point, audiences thought of opera as the singer with the spear and the horned helmet.”


In 1952, Floyd met Nathan S. “Sam” Blount, a graduate english student at FSU. Blount suggested they team up as librettist and composer and offered the idea of an opera based on the biblical Apocrypha story of Susanna and the Elders. Blount and Floyd identified with the story of a heroine who was wrongly accused, a timely parallel in that era of McCarthyism and patriotic paranoia.

Floyd was attracted to the subject because it focused on religious hypocrisy. “It struck fire immediately. We had the idea of updating the action and placing it in the remote Tennessee Valley during the summer revival meetings.” But, Blount procrastinated and did not present a draft of a libretto. Floyd was so anxious to get moving on the project, he wrote his own libretto in ten days.

Looking back on his life up to that point, Floyd seemed destined to write Susannah. “I suppose I was,” said Floyd. “I drew on many aspects of my own experience for it.” Floyd was well familiar with the conservative teachings of the Methodist church and had been forced to attend revival meetings as a child. He had grown up among selfrighteous adults who were quick with a judgmental comment or a critical remark, his father providing the closest example.

Floyd completed the score in March, 1954. “With the confidence of a twenty-seven-year-old,” recalled Floyd, “I went to Karl Kuersteiner, dean of the School of Music at Florida State, and told him I’d written an opera and I’d like to see it done there. It’s the kind of brashness you have when you begin a career [he laughs].” Kuersteiner was impressed with Susannah and gave Floyd the authority to engage professionals in the lead roles.

“I was at the Aspen Festival that summer,” said Floyd, “and Phyllis Curtin and Mack Harrell were on the voice faculty. I knew of Phyllis’s career, her dedication to new music, and most recently, her sensational Salome at New York City Opera. I called her up one evening and she invited me over to play through Susannah.”

Curtin, who grew up in Clarksburg, West Virginia, less than a day’s drive from Floyd’s birthplace, had an immediate identification with the character of Susannah. “I remember I was tired when he asked me,” recalled Curtin, “but I told him I’d love to hear it. We read through Susannah and I fell in love with it. I didn’t grow up in the hill country of West Virginia for nothing! I called Mack and told him there was something he had to hear. Carlisle and I went through it again for him and he loved it as much as I did.” They found they both had the same two weeks free the following February and agreed to do the piece.

As preparations for the premiere got underway, FSU president Doak Campbell asked to read the Susannah libretto. After doing so, Campbell and his wife deemed the opera unsuitable for presentation. “That was a very unpleasant and troubling episode,” said Floyd. “They withdrew the funds and suddenly everything was uncertain. [Campbell] was vehement in making accusations that I had written it for the sexual excitement and objected that Susannah must have become pregnant as a result of the encounter with Blitch. He didn’t understand the story at all. I finally called on him directly. I explained that the story was about Susannah’s innocence and he saw he was wrong and allowed the production to move forward.”

Opening Night

I won’t say that the success of Susannah was unexpected,” said Floyd, “but, it was on a scale I hadn’t planned for. My parents sat with the Governor and his wife at the performance. FSU President Campbell was not planning on attending, but when he found out the Governor and his wife were giving the opening night party at the Governor’s mansion, he and his wife were suddenly available.” Audience and critical reaction was nearly unanimous: Susannah was a success. Plans for a New York production began immediately. Erich Leinsdorf had just been appointed music director of New York City Opera and scheduled the opera for the 1956 fall season.

In another twist of fate, Harrell and NYCO were in a dispute about the baritone’s contract. Unwilling to wait for resolution, Harrell had accepted another engagement. “Norman Treigle took the role,” said Floyd. “From that point he made it his own. He was Olin Blitch.” Susannah won a New York Critics’ Circle Award and was performed at NYCO for five consecutive seasons. As part of the United States’ participation in the 1958 Brussels World Fair, NYCO and Susannah were selected to represent the American performing arts.

“I’ve been enormously pleased with Susannah’s staying power over the years,” said Floyd. “People always respond to something that is human and direct without apology. Certainly that’s the staying power of the Williams and Miller plays. I don’t think anybody nowadays talks about the expressionistic thrust of Death of a Salesman. What sustains it is the fact that it is profoundly human.”

Did Floyd’s complicated relationship with his father give him any hesitations about Susannah? “That’s a logical question to ask. I have to say, it did not. My father was supportive of me from the time I started studying piano in high school,” said Floyd. “Yet, he was also critical. He was in the opening night audiences at FSU and in New York and saw many performances in different places. He never said anything to me about his feelings on the opera. It wasn’t until years later when [Floyd’s wife] Kay asked him about his reaction the first time he saw the revival scene. He said, ‘I almost left.’ Kay adroitly responded that she could see how someone who felt seriously about revival meetings would react like that, which cooled things down. I believe he thought it was an accurate depiction of a revival scene. I still thunder on about that. I don’t want even a hint of parody, with people screaming and rolling around on the floor. I want something solemn and frightening, which is the way I saw it through the eyes of a child. Anything else diminishes the power of the scene. It becomes easy for the audience to say, ‘oh look at those poor, benighted people,’ and not see themselves.

A Fortunate Meeting

On July 9, 1971, Floyd attended a new production of his most recent opera, Of Mice and Men, and met David Gockley, the 28- year-old general director-designate of Houston Grand Opera. After the performance Gockley pitched his ideas to the composer over Jack Daniels at Floyd’s hotel: new productions of Susannah and Of Mice and Men, to be followed by a new opera.

“When I met David, he looked like a college sophomore,” recalled Floyd. “What impressed me was his seriousness and his strong intent. He wanted me to do an opera for HGO for the bicentennial. I had several offers from other companies, but had not committed myself yet. When David asked me, I decided to say ‘yes.’

“David has been a marvelous champion,” said Floyd. “[He] wanted first crack at any opera I wrote and then always gave it a wonderful production. We’ve done six operas together [SusannahOf Mice and Men, plus world premieres of Bilby’s Doll, Willie Stark, the revised version of The Passion of Jonathan Wade, and Cold Sassy Tree].”

How does Floyd feel about being labeled an outsider throughout his career? “It depends on what you mean by outsider,” he began. “If you mean someone who doesn’t follow musical fashion, I would certainly plead guilty to that. I found a certain kind of music congenial to me; it never occurred to me to write music that was academically acceptable. I’m by no means the only so-called outsider. I think I have quite a bit of company these days. One of the first things young composers who come to work with me say is that they want to write music people will like, and that’s a thoroughly commendable attitude if it doesn’t mean pandering. Verdi and Handel wrote very likeable music for their publics.”

It’s impossible to deny that Floyd has spent his career working in a genre that exists on the sidelines of American culture. “The artist is something of an outsider in America. I have always felt that America does not value its artists. There is something inherent in our democracy that tends to want to level. We are a curious nation because on the one hand, there is no country that extols the nonconformist, the rugged individual, more than we do. Yet, there is huge pressure toward conformity. That same kind of duality exists in the oppression of the arts.”

Floyd is working on a new opera based on the life of Edward Kynaston, the last British male actor to appear on stage as a woman during the 17-century English Restoration. He continues to be motivated by the possibility of communicating a story directly to an audience. “When I was starting out, I said I wanted to create operas in which the drama was tight and forward-moving, as you found in theater and film. I would hope an audience would be absorbed by what they are witnessing on stage and see what I am presenting as a deeply human experience.

“When Willie Stark had its premiere at the Kennedy Center, Illinois Congressman [Sidney R.] Yates was seated next to me. After the opera was over, he said to me, ‘I was looking forward to having a doze at the opera. I didn’t blink.’ I told him he could not have given me a greater compliment.”

Robert Wilder Blue is a Bay Area writer and frequent contributor to San Francisco Opera Magazine.

Creativity amidst Adversity