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Carlisle Floyd discusses the narrative dimension of opera

Set design for the SFO company premiere of Carlisle Floyd's most famous opera
Set design for the SFO company premiere of Carlisle Floyd's most famous opera
by Erhard Rom, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera

Yesterday evening San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the first Insight Panel of the its 2014–15 season. The Panel was hosted by Jon Finck, Director of Communications and Public Affairs; and the topic was the company premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s 1955 opera Susannah. What made this a particularly special occasion was that Floyd himself, who turned 88 last June, was on hand to participate, along with SFO General Director David Gockley, soprano Patricia Racette (who will be singing the title role), stage director Michael Cavanagh, and conductor Karen Kamensek.

For those of us who attended the SFO members meeting this past spring, this was a second opportunity to listen to Floyd talk about his work; and the treat was just as great as it had previously been. Floyd never seems to be at a loss for words; and his words never seem to be at a loss for insight, making him the perfect guest for this “Insight” series. What I did not expect (but still enjoyed thoroughly) was that he spent more time talking about librettos than about music.

As I have previously observed, Floyd wrote his own libretto for Susannah and did the same for all of his later operas. While the story is loosely based on an episode in the Biblical apocrypha originally associated with the Book of Daniel, Floyd was actually inspired by a Renaissance painting of that portion of the story in which the elders are spying on Susannah while she was bathing. Floyd’s libretto “Americanized” the tale, setting it in the mountain town of New Hope Valley, Tennessee.

Floyd was emphatic about the fact that he could not begin to think about the music for an opera until he had thought through the libretto. He explained that the heart of any good libretto was a moment of crisis. From there one could unfold the actions and feelings that reverberate in space and time from that crisis into both the past events leading up to it and the future repercussions. Most important, however, was that all this had to be distilled down to a text of utmost brevity, avoiding the danger that too many words would get in the way of the music. (Floyd reminded his audience that “libretto” is an Italian word meaning “little book,” putting all the emphasis on the adjective.)

Floyd’s understanding of literature is clearly up there at the same level of the best of the academic literary theorists (perhaps even a bit higher, since his work depends on turning theory into practice). Indeed, many of his operas that followed Susannah took on major literary figures, including Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men), Robert Penn Warren (Willie Stark), and Olive Ann Burns (Cold Sassy Tree). In the operas I have seen (and consistently enjoyed), Susannah, Of Mice and Men, and Willie Stark, I have been impressed by his ability to structure his music around all of the elements through which a narrative unfolds (such as plot, characters, and setting), weaving them all together into a coherent entirety of crystal clarity. At last night’s panel, we learned that the discipline behind all of these operas began with Floyd’s approach to creating Susannah; and its entry into the SFO repertoire could not be more welcome.

Susannah will be sung in English with English subtitles. It will be given five performances at 7:30 p.m. on September 6, 9, 12, and 16 and at 2 p.m. on September 21. It has its own event page on the SFO Web site from which tickets may be purchased. Tickets are priced from $30 to $370 and may be purchased through that same event page. They may also be purchased at the SFO Box Office in the War Memorial Opera House (301 Van Ness Avenue at the northwest corner of Grove Street) or by calling 415-864-3330. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. It is open for telephone orders only on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Standing Room tickets go on sale for $10 (cash only) at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance.