Born in Latta, South Carolina, this American writer is the winner of the Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Medal of Arts from the White House, and the Anton Coppola Excellence in the Arts Award from the Opera Tampa. His first opera, Slow Dusk, premiered in Syracuse in 1949. Floyd also penned the libretto, which was not uncommon for his works.
Floyd’s academic achievements include Bachelors and Masters degrees in Music with emphasis on composition and piano. Many of his works are still reproduced today throughout America and Europe. Floyd served as an educator for thirty years in Tallahassee at Florida State University. He started in the piano faculty but ultimately earned the title of Professor of Composition.
Slow Dusk, produced in 1949, was the first operatic composition by Floyd and it was staged in Syracuse that year. The second opera written by Floyd was The Fugitives, which was produced in 1951 in Tallahassee.
As one of the leading operatic composers in America whose works are regularly performed throughout the world, we would like to dedicate this list to the work of Carlisle Floyd.
We thought we would start with Floyd’s most successful opera, which happens to be his third. The story that surrounds a young girl by the name of Susannah Polk. The community, as a whole, is continually judging her as if she were immoral when, in reality, she is raped by a religious leader and blamed for the act. New Hope Valley, Tennessee is the setting of this heartbreaking tale.
The libretto, written by Floyd as well, was inspired by the fable of Shoshana from the Book of Daniel. The first showing of this opera was in 1955 at Florida State starring Phyllis Curtin and Mack Harrell. In 1956 the New York City Opera obtained rights for a reproduction and Phyllis Curtin went along to play the title role.
Others starring in the New York City production were Norman Treigle and Erich Leinsdorf. From New York this Floyd opera had yet another reproduction a few years later in 1958 at the World’s Fair in Brussels. This piece was considered the best representation, that year, of American culture and music.
Next to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Susannah is the second most performed American Opera in the World. Due to its initial popularity for the Florida State production in 1955 Floyd was given an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. Some say that McCarthyism themes could be interpreted in this Floyd opera yet the theme of feminism is rather apparent in the content.
2. Wuthering Heights
Based on the legendary love story of Heathcliff and Catherine in a novel written by Emily Brontë, this next Floyd opera opened on July 16, 1958 at the Santa Fe Opera. This inaugural production was directed by Irving Guttman, a stage director who was born in Ontario. In 1959 another production of this Floyd opera was staged by the New York City Opera with Phyllis Curtin, Patricia Neway, and Frank Porretta in the cast.
This opera should not be confused with the Bernard Herrmann work of the same name. Unfortunately, more can be found on the Herrmann work than the Floyd piece. So let’s move on to the next Floyd opera.
This one act opera is almost as obscure as the last. Once again, Floyd wrote the libretto for this musical composition. Based on the Robert Louis Stevenson story with the same title the premiered of this opera was held at the New Orleans Opera on March 31, 1966. Knud D. Andersson, an American conductor born in Germany led the orchestra while the composer directed the production.
Norman Treigle, who was already in a previous Floyd production, starred in this opera and it is said that the composer dedicated the work to Treigle. Other notable performers are Alan Crofoot, Audrey Schuh, and William Diard. A recording of this pioneer cast for this Floyd opera could be found on the Video Artists International record label, it was released in 1995.
A more recent production, in 1974, by the University of Washington, was a student production conducted by Samuel Krachmalnick, a Tony Award winning American conductor. This production was shown on PBS around the United States and was awarded three Emmys.
4. Of Mice and Men
Sticking with the literary theme of his works this three act opera composed by Floyd, who wrote the libretto as well (of course!), was based on the novella by American novelist John Steinbeck. The plot follows two men who are in search of ranch work. The era is the great depression and the Steinbeck novella has been banned in certain communities in the United States.
While the original work was published in 1937, the operatic version of this classic tale was composed thirty-two years later. It opened at the Moore Theatre on January 22, 1970 and the production was staged by the Seattle Opera. In 1983, Of Mice and Men debuted at the New York City Opera and a recording of that cast was released on Albany Records in 2004.
5. Flower and Hawk
It seems that not only did Floyd enjoy sticking with composing around renowned literary works, he also believed in sticking with the same people. We say this because this next opera also starred Phyllis Curtin, whose name we have seen several times in this blog.
This opera was the seventh that Floyd premiered and this opening happened at the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra with Willis Page conducting. Frank Corsaro, one of the United States most reputable stage directors of the time, staged the production.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, a Middle Age heroine who would become Queen of France and then the Queen of England, is the subject of this Floyd opera. The part of Eleanor’s life that the play surrounds is the time when her husband, Henry II of England, imprisoned her for sixteen years for helping their son Henry lead a revolt against him.
The plot takes her from levels of despair to climbing out of hope and back to despair again. At the end the bells toll revealing that her husband has died, which means her son will release her and she will serve as Queen again. Floyd titled the opera based on her crest, which has her holding a hawk and a flower.
6. Bilby’s Doll
The next Floyd opera we would like to discuss is a three act work that tells the tale of Doll Bilby, who is raised by a foster couple in a Puritan colony. This dark tale premiered at the Houston Grand Opera on February 27, 1976. The sets were designed by Ming Cho Lee, a prominent Chinese American designer of the time.
In celebration of the US Bicentennial, the general director of the Houston Grand commissioned the work from Floyd. The story follows Doll Bilby and her life after her foster father Jared brings her to America from France, where her parents were burned at the stake for being witches.
Her foster parents plan for her to marry Titus Thumb, who is studying for the ministry but Doll refuses claiming that she may become a witch since her parents were executed for the crime. Doll marries a young man that she believes is a demon. When it turns out that her husband is not an evil entity but the son of a minister Doll is devastated.
Learn more about these 3 influential composers of opera, ballet classical music!