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Carlisle Floyd, celebrated composer of 'Susannah,' dies

by The Washington Post | October 5, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

Carlisle Floyd, a composer who melded lyrical melodies and easy-on-the-ear harmonies with his own librettos to create several of the most enduring works in the American opera repertory, died Sept. 30 at his home in Tallahassee. He was 95.

Floyd's publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, announced the death but did not specify a cause.

The South Carolina-born Floyd was best known for his two-act opera "Susannah" (1955), which made him world-famous while he was still in his 20s and ranks with the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess" (1935) among American operas in the number of performances it has received.

His other dramatic works included "Wuthering Heights" (1958), "Of Mice and Men" (1970) and "Willie Stark" (commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera and the Kennedy Center and presented in both places in 1981). Although he adapted familiar books by Emily Bronte, John Steinbeck and Robert Penn Warren for these pieces, working closely with the last two authors, Floyd always wrote his own librettos.

"My gift, such as it is, is really for writing music for the theater," he told the Denver Post in 2008. "I spent a great deal of my time during my college career in creative writing, so the idea of writing my own libretti seemed no stretch at all for me." He finished the libretto for "Susannah" in 10 days, then spent most of a year composing the music.

"Susannah" was an unlikely success story. In the summer of 1954, Floyd, then a pianist teaching at Florida State University, had traveled to the Aspen Music Festival, with the expressed intent of brushing up on his keyboard studies while privately looking for singers to perform his first professional opera. The soprano Phyllis Curtin was just beginning her long and storied career: She was then a member of the Aspen faculty and, on an impulse, Floyd rang her up.

"I simply called her and introduced myself and expected a stall or a put-off, you know, because I was certainly nobody she knew," Floyd recalled to the Post. "She said, 'I would love to see it. Come over this afternoon.' I was taken aback, but very pleasantly." The celebrated baritone Mack Harrell attended as well and - to the delight and astonishment of all parties - they agreed to appear in the premiere performance in Tallahassee in February 1955. (The orchestra and remainder of the cast were all FSU students or faculty.)

This would be the first of more than 800 performances in more than 200 different productions to date. Many of those were regional stagings, presented by universities and small companies.

"I feel a strong commitment to university opera programs," Floyd told the Tallahassee Democrat in 2011. "They are always underfunded, and operas are expensive to produce. But universities are also where you find ingenuity and imagination. They do more with less. They also feed the opera houses of America with talent and singers."

"Susannah" was adapted from the biblical "Book of Daniel," the story of a young maiden accused of immorality for swimming naked in a lake and her subsequent ostracization by pinched church elders. Floyd later said that he placed the story in the rural South, to echo the Sunday services, faith healings and camp meetings he had attended as a child.

The opera was such a success that the New York City Opera brought it to Manhattan, where Erich Leinsdorf, soon to be named music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted Curtin and the bass-baritone Norman Treigle in a production that became part of the company's repertory and rarely played to an empty seat.

John Rockwell, writing in the New York Times decades later, summed up the appeal succinctly, calling it a representative of a "golden age" of the 1940s and 1950s, "when both 'serious' and Broadway composers were confident they were creating a new, distinctly American operatic style."

"The music defines the all-American genre, its folk or folklike tunes mixed with forthright melodrama and firm tonal centers," Rockwell continued. "The vocal lines are so grateful that the score has become a staple in American opera auditions, and the orchestration is rich."

"Susannah" became one of the first American operas to be performed in Europe, at the Brussels Exhibition in 1958. "The critics were amazed that our singers could act and sing simultaneously," Floyd later recalled.

In the late 1960s, the Metropolitan Opera National Company offered performances of "Susannah" in 72 different cities over a nine-month tour throughout the United States. Its parent company - the Metropolitan Opera itself - mounted a much-praised staging in 1999 with soprano Renée Fleming and bass Samuel Ramey at Lincoln Center.

Floyd's work was not invariably admired by postwar international avant-garde composers, who placed a premium on complexity and innovation.

"The guiding spirit of Floyd's operas is a studied, almost draconian pragmatism that makes them attractively easy to stage while limiting the heights to which they can aspire," the Grove Dictionary of American Music summed up, in what it considered Floyd's strengths and weaknesses. "Casts and orchestras are small; plots, action, and scenery uncomplicated. No unusual instruments, voices or theater technologies are required, nor any great virtuosity in the performers. There is little counterpoint, or any musical feature that would demand more than minimal rehearsal time."

But Floyd recognized his audience and continued to work in his distinctive style into his 90s. "I wanted a form to engage the very wide upper-middlebrow audience who don't find anything in opera to nourish or stimulate them," he once explained to The Washington Post. "America needs an excellent popular art to coexist between the increasing TV product and the continued survival of highly elitist art for a very small audience."

Carlisle Sessions Floyd, Jr. was born in Latta, 25 miles north of Florence, S.C., on June 11, 1926. His father was a Methodist minister, and his mother was a pianist. Both families had settled in the Carolinas before the Revolutionary War and lived there mostly ever after.

According to Thomas Holliday, author of the 2013 biography "Falling Up: The Days and Nights of Carlisle Floyd," the composer and his sister Ermine "grew up in a whirlpool of family gatherings and visits, summer revival meetings, and frequent moves around the state for their father's postings."

On scholarship, he attended Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C., where he was mentored by composer Ernst Bacon. When Bacon joined the faculty at Syracuse University, Floyd followed and received a bachelor's degree in music in 1946. Bacon urged his pupil to try an opera, and he adopted one of his short stories, titled "Slow Dusk," for a production at the Syracuse Opera Workshop in 1949. That same year, he also completed a master's degree in music from the university.

By that time, he had already joined the music department of Florida State University, where he would remain until 1976. While there, Floyd gave what he believed was the first accredited course taught anywhere on the problems of coordinating music and text in opera to a class consisting of composers and librettists.

After FSU, he accepted a post at the University of Houston where, in addition to the duties of professor, he became co-director of the Houston Opera Studio.

Floyd's non-operatic works include song and choral cycles, a piano sonata and a book of études, as well as symphonic movements. In 2001, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he received the National Medal of Arts in 2004 from President George W. Bush.

His wife of 53 years, the former Margery Reeder, died in 2010. They had no children, and he leaves no immediate survivors.

Floyd was a dapper and gracious man, often described as a Southern gentleman. Singers loved him. Floyd helped Fleming land her first major role in "The Marriage of Figaro" at the Houston Grand Opera in the 1980s. "When I was leaving Julliard and couldn't get arrested," she once said, "Carlisle was the first to help me."

Floyd's last opera, "Prince of Players," received its premiere at FSU in 2017. Columnist Mark Hinson of the Tallahassee Democrat described it as "the story of a cross-dressing actor in 17th-century England named Edward Kynaston. The character pushes gender barriers, takes advantage of high-society groupies, tricks a nobleman into thinking he's a female prostitute, sings a very bawdy barroom tune and carries on a secret love affair with a wealthy male friend."

It was a departure for Floyd. "They forgot to tell me I couldn't write about these things," he said with a laugh after a dress rehearsal.

At a reception for this final premiere - as related by Hinson - an admirer walked up to the composer and said, "You have had a great career."

"I am still having a great career," Floyd replied.

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