Carlisle Floyd, composer of the record-breaking blockbuster opera Susannah – obituary
Carlisle Floyd, who has died aged 95, was an American operatic composer whose two-act Susannah (1955), written at the height of the McCarthy era and adapted from the biblical tale, is thought to be the most widely performed opera in the United States, outranking Mozart, Verdi and Puccini; it has fared less well in the UK, only receiving its first professional staging in Britain in 2008 by English Touring Opera.
In Floyd’s setting, Susannah is transported to the Appalachian Mountains of rural Tennessee in the American South, where residents of New Hope Valley gather for a revival meeting. They turn against Susannah, who has dared to bathe naked in the baptismal creek. Lloyd dispenses with the prophet Daniel and introduces the character of the Rev Olin Blitch, who incites a mob, tries to persuade Susannah to repent of a sin she denies committing, and then seduces her.
Eighteen months after its premiere in Tallahassee, Florida, Susannah reached New York City Opera, where the critics were impressed by its honesty and purity as well as its soaring melodies, lush harmonies and occasional folksy nod to the American musical. It was seen at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1958, performed in Britain by Kentish Opera Group at Orpington in 1961, and staged in Ireland and Germany. Virgin Classics released a recording starring Cheryl Studer and conducted by Kent Nagano in 1994.
The 2008 production by ETO, which was seen across the country, was welcomed by The Daily Telegraph critic Rupert Christiansen, who remarked: “It is a little scandal that it has had to wait more than 50 years for its fully professional British premiere.”
Carlisle Sessions Floyd was born in Latta, South Carolina, on June 11 1926, the son of Carlisle Floyd, a domineering Methodist preacher whose summer revival meetings across the state provided rich material for his son’s future work, and Ida (née Fenegan), young Carlisle’s first piano teacher.
Exempt from military service because of asthma, he studied piano at Converse College, Spartanburg, South Carolina, with Ernst Bacon, later following Bacon to the more multicultural Syracuse University, New York.
In 1947 he joined Florida State University, Tallahassee, as a piano teacher, eventually becoming professor of composition, and in 1976 took a similar post at the University of Houston in Texas.
His first opera, Slow Dusk, which transplanted Romeo and Juliet to South Carolina with lovers from opposing fundamentalist sects, was premiered at Syracuse in 1949, with Floyd later describing the 35-minute lyrical piece as “my graduate work”.
His second, The Fugitives, had its premiere at Tallahassee in 1951 and, as with all his operas, Floyd provided his own libretto. He soon withdrew the piece, claiming it was dull. “That’s the one unforgivable sin in the theatre,” he told Opera magazine. “I realised that you can’t simply have people ‘talking’ in opera unless there’s something underlying that gives it a more intense, fevered atmosphere.”
Although Floyd never repeated the success of Susannah, his third opera, he left his mark on American music with a dozen stage works including adaptations of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1958), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Markheim (1966) and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1970), his most performed work after Susannah.
A piano sonata, written in 1957 for his piano teacher Rudolf Firkusny who played it at Carnegie Hall, lay forgotten until being revived by Daniell Revenaugh in 2009.
After retiring in 1996, Floyd, who was always impeccably dressed, returned to Tallahassee and continued to mentor younger musicians, including Jake Heggie and Rufus Wainwright. In 2004 he received the National Medal of Arts from President George W Bush.
Floyd married, in 1957, Margery Reeder; she died in 2010 and there were no children of the marriage.
Carlisle Floyd, born June 11 1926, died September 30 2021
Photo: provided by The Telegraph