Carlisle Floyd, whose operas spun fables of the South, dies at 95
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Carlisle Floyd, whose operas spun fables of the South, dies at 95
His celebrated works drew from the musical traditions of revival meetings and country hoedowns, telling stories of intolerance.

by Robert D. McFadden

NEW YORK, NY.- Carlisle Floyd, the composer-librettist whose operas explored the passions and prejudices of the South in lyrical tales that drew on rural fundamentalism, the Great Depression, the aftermath of the Civil War and other regional themes, died Thursday in Tallahassee, Florida. He was 95.

His death was announced by his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes.

Among the leading 20th-century American opera composers, Floyd is often cited with Ned Rorem, Philip Glass, John Coolidge Adams, the Italian-American Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber and others whose works have joined the standard repertoire, including George Gershwin, who called his “Porgy and Bess” a folk opera, and Leonard Bernstein, whose “Candide” was an operetta.

The son of an itinerant South Carolina preacher, Floyd grew up with the music of the South: revival meeting hymns, square dance fiddlers, rollicking country hoedowns and folk songs. He wrote them into many of his operas, whose plots were largely derived from classics of literature, featuring social outcasts and narrow-minded neighbors who ostracized them.

Floyd said his exposure to religious bigotry early in life had shaped his operatic themes. “The thing that horrified me already as a child about revival meetings,” he told The New York Times in 1998, “was mass coercion, people being forced to conform to something against their will without ever knowing what they were being asked to confess or receive.”

His best-known opera was “Susannah,” based on the Apocrypha story of Susanna and the Elders. Taken from the Book of Daniel to the Tennessee hills and rendered in Smoky Mountain dialect, it portrays a young woman wrongly accused of promiscuity and a traveling preacher who incites a mob, then seduces her. The preacher is slain by her brother, and Susannah stands defiant, holding off the mob with a shotgun.

With hymns, square dances and arias simulating folk songs, “Susannah” leapt to national renown at the New York City Opera under Erich Leinsdorf in 1956. It won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award, was entered at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 as an outstanding example of American opera, and over the years became a favorite of regional companies, one of the most performed operas of the American musical stage.

Other notable Floyd operas included “Of Mice and Men,” his adaptation of John Steinbeck’s story of two tragic migrant farm workers in the Dust Bowl; “Willie Stark,” his treatment of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” about a ruthless politician modeled on Louisiana’s Huey P. Long; and “The Passion of Jonathan Wade,” about a Reconstruction-era love affair destroyed by intolerance and hate.

American audiences flocked to regional performances of Floyd’s work, especially “Susannah” and “Of Mice and Men.” But New York critics were negative about his music, if not his storytelling. In 1999, four decades and some 800 regional performances after it opened, “Susannah” was finally performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Valhalla of grand opera in America.

“Amiable, direct, wholly without guile, Carlisle Floyd’s American heroine and the work that bears her name arrived at the halls of grand opera on Wednesday night, looking like some lonely tourist lost in the vastness of Grand Central Terminal,” Bernard Holland wrote in The Times.

He added: “The piece is perfect in size and difficulty for the regional opera house or the amateur production, but lesser singing, I suspect, reveals its thinness even more. Mr. Floyd has a nice way with hoedowns, countrified modal melody and drumroll crescendos, but there is amazingly little going on at the musical end of this opera.”

Other critics disparaged his operas as narrowly drawn. But Floyd insisted that his stories reflected larger realities and that his characters — insular people fearful of outsiders and anyone different — were universal. And he scoffed at perceptions of his music as folk opera, implying that its tonal country sounds were naive.

“A lot of critics don’t like to acknowledge that there are no absolutes in taste, which is intensely personal and which governs a composer’s choice of idiom,” he told Opera News in 1999.

Floyd never sought to join the New York-Northeast musical establishment. He devoted much of his life to teaching, starting at Florida State University in 1947, and over 30 years wrote most of his operas in Tallahassee. From 1976 to 1996, he was a professor at the University of Houston, where he wrote several of his last operas, including “Cold Sassy Tree,” based on a novel by Olive Ann Burns about the romance between an aging widower and a young northerner that scandalizes a small Georgia town.

His last opera, “Prince of Players,” was premiered by the Houston Grand Opera in March 2016, months before his 90th birthday, and was performed by the Little Opera Theater of New York at Hunter College in February 2017.

Adapted from a Jeffrey Hatcher play (and subsequent 2004 film) about Edward Kynaston, one of the last actors of Restoration England to play female roles, “Prince of Players” centers on Kynaston’s crisis in 1661, when Charles II declares that all female roles on London stages must be played by women.

Reviewing the Houston production, Opera News said it revealed “Floyd’s deep understanding and sympathy for issues that pervade our culture today — the complexities and subtleties of gender identity, sexual preference and their social consequences — played out in a story from 17th-century England.”

Anthony Tommasini, in a review of the New York production for The Times, said: “It’s miraculous that a composer whose reputation dates to his 1955 ‘Susannah,’ one of the most performed American operas, is still working with assurance and skill.”

Carlisle Sessions Floyd was born in Latta, South Carolina, on June 11, 1926, one of two children of Carlisle and Ida (Fenegan) Floyd. He and his sister, Ermine, were schooled in a succession of South Carolina towns where their father was a Methodist preacher. Their mother nurtured Carlisle’s creative instincts, giving him piano lessons and encouraging him to write short stories.

After graduating from high school in North, South Carolina, he entered Converse College in Spartanburg in 1943. He studied music and piano under the composer Ernst Bacon. In 1945, when Bacon became director of the music school at Syracuse University, Floyd followed him there and earned a bachelor’s degree in music in 1946.

He began teaching at Florida State and was soon composing. In 1949, he earned a master’s degree at Syracuse. His first two operas sputtered, but “Susannah,” his third, thrived. It opened at Florida State in 1955, and its New York City Opera premiere was hailed a year later. Ronald Eyer, in Tempo, called it an “unadorned story of malice, hypocrisy and tragedy of almost scriptural simplicity.”

In 1957, Floyd married Margery Kay Reeder. She died in 2010. No immediate family members survive.

Besides the English actor Kynaston, in “Prince of Players,” Floyd’s only other non-American subject was Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,” his interpretation of which premiered at the Santa Fe Opera in 1958.

After a long gestation, “Of Mice and Men” opened at the Seattle Opera in 1970. It was widely performed by regional repertory companies. But when it finally landed at the New York City Opera in 1983, Donal Henahan of The Times said it “failed ultimately because it is a feeble score too dependent on gray declamatory lines and melodramatic clichés of the sort that no longer turn up even in television serials.”

In 1999, David Gockley, then general director of the Houston Grand Opera and a longtime admirer of Floyd’s work, told Opera News that New York reviewers were unfair to composers like Floyd.

“Carlisle Floyd is America’s foremost opera composer,” Gockley was quoted as saying. “If you’re not part of the Northeastern establishment, specifically the New York scene, you have no status. Because Floyd always lived and taught in Florida or Houston, he has been regarded as a regional figure, when in fact he is a national one.”

Floyd, who lived in Tallahassee, received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush at the White House in 2004. In 2008 he was named, along with the conductor James Levine and the soprano Leontyne Price, as among the first honorees of the National Endowment for the Arts for lifetime achievement in opera.

“Falling Up: The Days and Nights of Carlisle Floyd, the Authorized Biography” by Thomas Holliday, was published in 2013.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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