SFOpera - Innocence and Experience in Carlisle Floyd’s SUSANNAH

Innocence and Experience in Carlisle Floyd’s SUSANNAH

“The triumph of one human being over the depredations and moral pressure of a community is a wonderful source of drama, and the destruction of innocence is as heartbreaking a theme as we have to deal with.” —Carlisle Floyd

What sort of opera would you expect from the son of a Methodist minister, an aspiring concert pianist, not yet thirty, and a recent addition to the keyboard faculty at Florida state university? You might expect a work with religious overtones and the local color of the southern united states. You would probably not expect one of the greatest success stories in the history of American opera: Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah (1955). The first opera in Floyd’s catalogue after the one-act Slow Dusk (1949) and the full-length The Fugitives (which he withdrew after a single performance), Susannah has received more than 800 performances in its first fifty years, the most of any opera by an American. “I feel a little embarrassed,” Floyd has admitted, “I can only say that it was the impetuous and heedless confidence of a twenty-eight year old who had no composing reputation to lose, and certainly very little to draw on in the way of experience in, or exposure to, opera itself that made it possible.”

An accomplished student of creative writing, Floyd has always written his own librettos; even his more recent Cold Sassy Tree (2000) sets his own adaptation of the novel by olive Ann Burns. As one of the best known composer–librettists since Richard Wagner, Floyd is often asked to offer advice on choosing and shaping operatic material. he notes that, in order to work effectively in a genre where “showing” is more important than “telling,” one must be able to answer the following questions of any good opera plot: “whose story is it and what is the dramatic premise of the material? The answers should be simple to the point of being simplistic….” Although Floyd put this idea into words after the fact, Susannah makes clear that he already understood these aims intuitively at the very beginning of his career: the opera is entirely without subplots and the title character appears in each of its ten scenes.

Early in 1953, Floyd rediscovered the Apocryphal story of “Susanna and the Elders” in discussion with a graduate student in english literature and he recalls being immediately struck by its operatic potential: “the innocent and virtuous Susanna’s being spied upon while bathing by lustful elders who, when she refuses their advances, falsely accuse her of being an adulteress.” After this “basic premise,” however, Floyd’s vision diverged from the ancient text (and from the plot as it appears in G. F. Handel’s oratorio). First, he transplanted the story in time and space, moving it pointedly to “the present” and setting it “against the backdrop of a summer revival meeting” in a remote community in the mountains of eastern tennessee. More important, Floyd reversed the message of the traditional tale. Instead of the prophet Daniel (divinely inspired to cross-examine the elders and bring justice to the situation), Floyd’s new hope Valley is visited by the Reverend Olin Blitch, who himself succumbs to lust despite his terrifyingly fervent religiosity. Susannah thus traces not a story of wickedness punished, but a collective fall from grace: the church congregation becomes a mob, Susannah’s dissolute brother becomes a desperate murderer, the weak-willed fear-filled little Bat perjures himself, Blitch commits a sin he cannot live with, and Susannah herself is transformed almost beyond recognition.

The irrevocable changes wrought in New Hope Valley are rapid, even when measured by operatic standards. By the end of the first scene, almost all the characters are clearly delineated. the acidtongued Mrs. Mclean holds the other women under her sway, while their husbands vie with one another to dance with the exuberant and attractive susannah. Mistrust of strangers brings the community’s dancing to a temporary halt at the entrance of olin Blitch, but his association with the Church gives him immediate and unquestioned moral authority over all subsequent proceedings. even the physical setting contributes to Floyd’s almost startling efficiency. the stifling summer heat mirrors the suffocating mores of the close-knit community, and the fact that almost all of the action takes place either at the Polk home or on the church grounds reinforces the claustrophobic context of susannah’s ruin. reflecting on the pacing of the opera, the late Julius Rudel (consistent champion of Floyd’s music and conductor for most of Susannah’s many performances at new York City opera) observes, “there isn’t a wasted note or breath in the entire piece…. to conduct this work is in many ways like leading a religious service. it is critical to move the piece from scene to scene, to keep the drama taut and to let the characters evolve, so that through the cumulative build-up, the audience— the opera’s congregation—is pulled into New Hope Valley.”

Like many of Floyd’s other works, including Of Mice and Men (1970), Susannah is a plainspoken opera, relying on a gentle southern dialect and occasionally incorporating spoken words to great dramatic effect, especially during Blitch’s sermon at the pivotal revival meeting. The directness of Floyd’s prose is matched by his music, which takes the majority of its rhythms from the natural inflections of speech. lyrical outpourings are few and far between, but heightened declamation makes even routine dialogue memorable. The composer’s melodic lines have endeared him to singers worldwide. While rarely predictable at first hearing, they employ stepwise motion and consonant intervals that spell out the traditional triads of major and minor keys. even the most surprising utterances quickly come to sound “right.”

Much has been made of Floyd’s stylized folk songs—a habit he surely learned from his most important mentor, the composer-pianist Ernst Bacon. Written one year before Douglas Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe, and one year after Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land, Susannah holds its own as an evocation of regional Americana. Floyd has resisted labeling any of his works a “folk opera” along the lines of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), perhaps because of the condescension that often accompanies that label. Yet Floyd’s deployment of folk song gives us crucial insights into his characters. Unlike operas whose characters are strongly stratified along class lines, Susannah presents a more or less uniformly home-spun population. the fiddle tune of the opening scene—which rudel observes is “startlingly reminiscent” of the Prelude from J. S. Bach’s E-Major Violin Partita— ensures that we see them as capable of sharing a musical language. Yet only susannah and her brother sam actually sing “folk” material: the “Jaybird” song of Act I, Scene 2 and the mournful ballad with which susannah opens Act II, Scene 3. one does not have the impression that the other characters would be incapable of folk feeling—if only their hearts were pure. The fact that neither “Jaybird” nor the ballad return after Susannah’s seduction reinforces the powerful association between folk song and innocence.

The disappearance of folk music is only one of the many signposts in the gradual transformation of susannah at the heart of Floyd’s drama. even during the opening square dance, when susannah is only seen and not heard, the seeds of her destruction are readily apparent in the elders’ incautious admiration and Mrs. Mclean’s dark foreboding: “she’ll come to no good, mark my words.” introduced as an object of desire, Susannah finds her voice in Scene 2, with the opera’s lyric highpoint. The entire scene is framed by the characteristic rising leap of one of the most famous soprano arias in the American repertory, “Ain’t it a Pretty night.” the freshness of her wonder at the world spills into the childlike “Jaybird” song, which gives a tuneful form to Sam’s pet names for his sister (“little robin,” “little sparrow”) and sets up the fateful discovery of Susannah “naked as a jaybird” shortly thereafter. While the Susannah of “Ain’t it a Pretty night” was eager to see what lies “beyond them mountains,” by the beginning of Act II, her enthusiasm has been stunted by the injustice of her situation. “I ain’t gonna leave this place no more,” she states flatly to sam, “that’s one thing i know fer sure.” Her next (and last) true aria, the ballad of Act II, Scene 3 shows how drastically her worldview has darkened: “the trees on the mountain are cold and bare. The summer jes’ vanished an’ left them there.”

Standing like a pillar between these lyric moments is the fiery revival meeting itself. Justly celebrated as a showpiece for reverend Blitch, the scene also demonstrates the potentially devastating power of misguided communal enthusiasm. After welcoming the itinerant preacher to New Hope Valley (and not including the ominous quartet of elders proclaiming susannah’s wickedness), the chorus has remained relatively quiet until this point. Now its coercive power bursts forth in vociferous repetitions of a revival hymn calling sinners to confession. Floyd minces no words when he describes the actual revival meetings that he experienced as a youngster: “First of all, they’re very frightening—especially for children, but even for grown-ups who buy into their violently mysterious life-and-death proposition. It’s mass coercion to conform, whether people are really convinced of the doctrine or not. You simply bend the knee without question, which is the basis of any totalitarian society.” Measuring his operatic revival against such terrifying originals, Floyd confides: “the only [part of the opera] I ever heard my father comment on was the revival meeting scene, which i think he felt was sacrilegious…. he told me, in front of some other people, that he almost walked out. I think it was because it was real, and he felt, therefore, that I was blaspheming. I intended it to be real. It’s very solemn and also a very sinister occasion.” The destructive power of the revival meeting corrupts even the local landscape, as the pristine creek that welcomed Susannah’s nakedness is sullied, first by the sheer number of baptisms—” the crick must be plum’ spoilt now,” Susannah complains— and finally polluted by the blood of Blitch.

In “Ain’t it a Pretty night,” Susannah had sketched a tennessee eden. Older and wiser, her brother sam sees the community capacity for evil: “they’ll turn this valley into hell,” he predicts at the end of Act I. this vision of a twisted moral order suggests a powerful parallel between the opera’s plot and the cultural context of its conception: the aftermath of the so-called “red scare,” during which u. s. senator Joseph McCarthy and others pursued suspected communists with a combination of religious zeal, innuendo, and intimidation. While distancing himself from any directly political interpretation of his work—“I’m too practical a man of theater,” he says—Floyd admits that the witch-hunts of the 1950s left their mark on Susannah. he recalls, “I did write the work during the McCarthy years, and i lived through the terrors. At Florida state an accusation was tantamount to guilt. We faculty had to sign a pledge of loyalty or lose our jobs. it affected me and informed me emotionally. And there it is in the opera. But I can’t say I put it there.” With the precedent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) in mind, it is easy to see McCarthyism continuing to cast its long shadow over Floyd’s own theocratic parable of 1976 Bilby’s Doll (based on A Mirror for Witches, Esther Forbes’s novel about seventeenth-century Salem).

Perhaps because of the politically charged context of its first performance, and almost certainly because of its ingratiating vocal lines and stageworthiness, Susannah has always been a favorite with its casts. the opera’s impact on its early performers is signaled by the fact that the youngest granddaughter of conductor Julius Rudel bears the title character’s name. Norman Treigle (who played Olin Blitch for New York audiences) went one step further by calling his daughter Phyllis Susannah Treigle, after soprano Phyllis Curtain, who created the title role at the premiere and helped bring the work to the New York City Opera in 1956. Despite winning a New York Music Critics’ Circle Award, being selected to represent American opera at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, and achieving resounding successes on stages worldwide, forty-four years would pass before Susannah was invited to that most prestigious of U. S. operatic venues, the Metropolitan Opera, probably thanks to the intercession of such singers as Renée Fleming, who had sung Susannah with the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1993. For some critics, Floyd’s unpretentious tunefulness seemed “out of place” at the Met, where twentieth-century productions have tended to be challenging in design and musical language. Bernard Holland of The New York Times meant it as no compliment when he called Susannah “as simple as it seems,” comparing it to “something small and innocent, some lonely tourist lost in the vastness of Grand Central terminal.” Yet it is precisely this intimacy and immediacy that has ensured the opera’s ability to speak to audiences in productions far removed from any revival meeting. Its continued popularity speaks for the enjoyment gained and the lessons learned each time Susannah has traveled “beyond them mountains.”

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