Carlisle Floyd

NEA Opera Honors recipient
Carlisle Floyd

Photo by Jim Caldwell

Transcript of conversation with Carlisle Floyd

Jo Reed: That was Phyllis Curtain singing the title role of Susannah which was written by the acclaimed composer, librettist, and National Medal of Arts recipient Carlisle Floyd.  Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host Josephine Reed. 

Carlisle Floyd has created a distinctively American voice in opera, drawing on national folk and religious musical traditions. From Susannah, first performed in 1955 to Cold Sassy Tree which debuted in 2000, Carlisle Floyd has consistently expanded the language of opera to tell American Stories, exploring themes from the aftermath of the Civil War, to the Great Depression, and rural fundamentalism. And he has found enormous success both home and abroad. Passionate about arts education, Floyd together with David Gockley established the important Opera Studio in Houston, which for more than three decades has helped train young artists in the full spectrum of opera.  In 2008, he was honored by the NEA for his contributions to the arts in the United States when he was named to the inaugural class of the NEA Opera Honors.  I spoke with Carlisle Floyd recently, and began our conversation by asking him about his background in the rural south.

Carlisle Floyd: I was brought up in South Carolina in what they called the Low Country.  My father being a minister, we moved to several different places during the time of my growing up.

Jo Reed: Did you come from a musical family?

Carlisle Floyd:  My mother was a pianist, yes.  She had been a piano major in college for a couple of years.  She was the only so-called trained musician in the family.  I remember very much growing up and her family and my grandfather and her two sisters and her brother very much loved to get around the piano and sing like a quartet and I just took that for granted and sort of thought everybody’s family did that.  But I realized now in retrospect it was certainly musical and my mother played.

Jo Reed: Now I’m assuming you were given piano lessons as a kid.

Carlisle Floyd: Yeah, I started piano lessons when I was about 10.  Actually I begged for them and started with my mother at the age of 3 and she got in all the necessary materials to get me started and then I found out that there was work involved <laughs> and so I quickly gave that up. <laughs> I wanted to play but I didn’t want to practice at the age of 3.  Then around 10 I had been playing by ear for a while and my sister was to start piano lessons and my father, actually I found this out late in life, my father actually insisted that I be given piano lessons as well and once that got started I went very quickly.

Jo Reed: This seems like a strange question but when did you get serious about music?

Carlisle Floyd: I don’t think that’s a strange question at all because I was very fortunate I had gifts in other of the arts.  I started out, everybody assumed that I would be a painter because I drew from the time I was about four and I also of course wrote and had been thinking about going into that when I went to college.  So the choice of music, I was rather serious about it by my, I would say, mid teens but the thing that really propelled me into music permanently was winning a scholarship in piano to Converse College in South Carolina, which was the preeminent music school in that part of the county and that set me on my course because my teacher there was Ernst Bacon who was the Dean of the school there and then subsequently in two years became the director of the school at Syracuse and I went with him, and he was a very big influence on my early life, early musical life.

Jo Reed: Now you began teaching before you began composing. 

Carlisle Floyd: Oh yes.

Jo Reed: You were teaching at FSU?

Carlisle Floyd: Yeah.  Yeah, I had considered myself really from the time I entered college my career was to be the solo pianist and then I was taken on the faculty at FSU when I was just barely 21 and they weren’t quite sure what to do with me <laughs> but they engaged me nonetheless on the recommendation of my teacher, Ernst Bacon, who apparently gave me a very strong recommendation so that it intrigued the Dean here and I had an interview with him, with the Dean, about the position because this was in 1947 I guess it was and he asked me when I would be 21 and I told him and he says, “Wonderful, that’s four days before our summer school starts and we cannot hire anybody because of state law who is under the age of 21 and younger than the students.”  So that’s how I was initially employed and it was very tentative.  I was employed for six weeks in the summer and then another six weeks and then by the time of the fall they kept me on the regular faculty and I was given a very curious title which I think was made from my particular position or invented, and that was “Assistant Instructor,” and of course instructor is supposed to be the base level for any professor but then they were very good and I went off and got a masters degree and came back and I received an Assistant Professorship.  So that’s the way I began my life in academia and then also in music.

Jo Reed: What drew you to opera?

Carlisle Floyd: That’s a very good question and one I’m very frequently asked and it’s very hard to answer because I was never an opera fan. But I think in retrospect it was because it was the art for that combined all of those elements that I mentioned to you earlier that I was interested in along with music, of course theater, writing.  I’ve always felt that my abilities in drawing and painting were very big assets to working with set designers and lighting people, especially when I got into directing my own operas and other people’s operas as well.  So I think just unconsciously I was drawn to it but I kept the career going as a solo pianist until the production of Susannah in New York and that changed everything. 

Jo Reed: Well let’s talk about Susannah.  It was your first great hit and it’s one of the most famous 20th Century American operas.  It’s performed in repertory all the time.  What drew you to the story of Susannah?

Carlisle Floyd:  A friend of mine who was an English major here at Florida State and who was a would-be writer and had I think an idea of doing the libretto himself because I had done a couple of one-act operas, that was all I had done up until that point, and he asked me had I ever thought of updating the apocryphal story of Susannah and the elders and I had to confess that I really didn’t know the story.  I knew it had been the subject for Renaissance paintings and things of that nature.  So he outlined very briefly to me what the story was, which is pretty simple, and then I think my imagination immediately caught fire and I began to see if I set it in the mountains of Tennessee, a rather remote, recessed place in a community that was very much self-governed and not really open to the outside world and this began, one thing began to occur to me after the other.  But the main thing is that my response to it was to the story itself and to the inherent drama in this story, the story of a young girl falsely accused, and also against the background of a summer revival meeting, which of course gave it extra, I mean, certainly increased tension and which I tried to utilize very much in the libretto so that the actual going to the revival meeting scene of Susannah, which is the climax really of the second act, that became the tension builder for the entire opera, the revival meeting scene, because of course without the revival there would have been no Reverend Blitch who was the itinerant evangelist conducting the revival, etcetera.  And I had grown up attending those rural revival meetings when my father was a minister in small towns that had these adjacent community churches and sometimes there were three or four during the summer, and of course growing up my sister and I felt that it was a real burden to have to attend but nonetheless we did.  But it was the very big social event for those very poor people who were all farmers and this was of course during the height of the depression.  So I had that background very much in my mind as well.  So I think you can see a number of things began to spark as soon as I found out what the basic thrust of the story was.

Jo Reed: Now Susannah had its premier in Tallahassee.  How did it move to New York where it was presented by City Opera?

Carlisle Floyd: It moved to New York through the absolutely tireless efforts of Phyllis Curtin, who had come to Tallahassee to do the premier. She played the part of Susannah and originated it and was the Susannah for the first three or four years of the opera’s life.  But I had sought her out in Aspen.  I had been a student in piano in Aspen earlier and I did not know her.  I just knew of her reputation, which was very stellar.  She was the leading soprano at the City Opera at the time and did almost all the new premiers, and so I simply went to Aspen and called her and told her I had an opera I would like to show her and would she be willing to look at it, and to my delight and astonishment she said, “By all means, come over this afternoon.”  So it was really as simple as that.  I went over to her house because she was in Aspen as the soprano on the staff, performing and also teaching, very young and had had a wonderful career-making performance as Salome at the City Opera the year before, and she told me when I met her that she felt a very strong affinity for Susannah because she had also been denounced <laughs> for doing the dance of the seven veils at the City Opera in the pulpit in her hometown.  So she knew something about accusation.  But in any case she became a strong advocate really from the beginning for the opera and auditioned it for producers in New York and any producer who seemed like a likely possibility and as I said, she was tireless in this and she not only sang the role of Susannah, she sang all the other roles as well if nobody was there to do it.  it was Erik Leinsdorf who decided to produce it at City Opera in his one season there.  So it opened in September of 1956 and the rest, as they say I hope, is history …

Jo Reed: Carlisle, were you prepared for the acclaim that that opera got?

Carlisle Floyd: Oh no.  No.  In one way I was because I had a very strong belief in the opera which certainly had been strengthened by Phyllis’s and also dedication to it, but no I don’t-- looking back on it now I think it was a much bigger event than I surmised it to be at the time.  But I certainly enjoyed every moment of it.  I certainly didn’t expect it to be around <laughs> 55 years later.

Jo Reed: And to be still as fresh 55 years later.

Carlisle Floyd: That’s the happiest part of it for me, yes. I remember my colleague and friend, Ned Rorem, seeing it after about 20 years in New York in a City Opera production, one more revival of it there, and he says, “Carlisle, it’s as fresh as it was when it was first done,” and I loved hearing it described that way.

Jo Reed: Well let’s fast forward a bit to Of Mice and Men. It took you five years to write?

Carlisle Floyd: I made a false start.  I wrote the full libretto and about two-thirds of the music and then realized something was very wrong because it was beginning to assume the length of a Wagnerian opera and I thought of course this little novella was being a short, very compact opera and so on the advice of my professional friends, some of it rather brutal about the first version, I started all over and simply, on the advice of a stage director friend of mine, Tito Capobianco, he said, “Never look at the book again.  You’ve digested the book.  Do your own Of Mice and Men, and so that’s exactly what I did.  I thought it was very good advice and it certainly made a permanent impression upon me of the difference of playwriting <laughs> and libretto writing, which I had thought I understood at that point.  So I started out really just stripping it to its absolute essentials as a story and that then thus became what you know and certainly what I know is Of Mice and Men now.

Jo Reed: Explain to us what the difference is between playwriting and libretto writing.

Carlisle Floyd: <laughs> Twenty-five words or less, huh?  There are of course there are many similarities but the main difference is that in opera, as much as possible needs to be shown instead of told.  It’s all about action and emotion.  I think the best way to describe it is don’t take any subject for a libretto for an opera that doesn’t inherently have a crisis situation because it’s not the everyday event, it’s the unusual event and the event that is pivotal in people’s lives.  That’s the seed and the basis of your action and of course very, very strong emotional content because music if put to words that are fairly prosaic are banal just reveals the poverty of those words very, very quickly unless there’s emotional content behind them.  So all of those things have to be considered.  I could go on for much, much longer but the main thing is you cannot-- in a libretto you have to strip everything to its essentials.  That’s almost the first requirement.  Can the story be compressed into really what we call in theater and in opera a spine and anything that doesn’t feed directly into that spine just has to be discarded.

Jo Reed: And you certainly had to do that with All The King’s Men, that you…

Carlisle Floyd: Oh yes.

Jo Reed: …turned into the opera, Willie Stark

Carlisle Floyd: Yes but the difference was All the King’s Men is a huge and complex novel whereas Of Mice and Men, of course, is 125 pages or something like that and I knew at the outset, and of course after the experience of Of Mice and Men, I certainly knew that my task was ahead of me. How do I compress this enormously complex story with just a bevy of characters into something that one could put on the stage, musical stage.  And so I decided upon reducing it all to a ten-day period during Willie Stark’s campaign to avoid impeachment, and that gave me my thrust into the story.  Of course that meant combining characters in the novel, it meant eliminating a number of characters, of course endless number of scenes, but the thing that Robert Penn Warren said to me I remember on opening night at The Kennedy Center and subsequent after that, he said, “I know why you did what you did,” and he meant I approve of what you did  and of course that was a very important endorsement and one that I very much cherish but as I said, the complexity of that novel which is really almost epic in its proportions, the red light went off right from the beginning.  I just thought how can I condense this and yet stay to the basic theme of the story as I saw it.  And so I have to say that I think I ended up doing 11 versions of the libretto of that.

Jo Reed: Let me ask you, do you start with the music, do you start with the libretto?

Carlisle Floyd: Oh no.

Jo Reed: Do both happen simultaneously?

Carlisle Floyd: Oh no, no. No, they’re completely different disciplines and I start entirely with the libretto. Giancarlo Menotti started, he did it all simultaneously. I have no idea how he did it, because to me the libretto is one thing, writing of the music is another. I spend, usually now, about 18 months on the libretto.

Jo Reed: And the music?

Carlisle Floyd: Curious enough, about the same time. Same amount of time. And of course, the scoring is usually about three months. So, in other words, I’ve always insisted on the commissions being for three years.

Jo Reed: Okay. Here’s a question. You read a novel, like Cold Sassy Tree which is a charming, wonderful book. How do you look at this and say, “Ah ha! This can be an opera.”

Carlisle Floyd: Very good question. Because, I didn’t see it. I mean, I was fascinated by the characters. It’s a charming, warm, and moving southern tale of life at the beginning of the twentieth century. And I first read it just recreationally because my sister had told me about, and had enjoyed it very much, and suggested that I read it. She thought that I would find it very enjoyable, seeing such a faithful accounting of life in the south at that particular period. And I did. And I vaguely had the idea, “Well maybe this could become an opera, but I really don’t see how.” And then, I gave the book to my very dear friend and colleague, David Gockley, to read, who was general rector of the Houston Opera at that time, and who’d commissioned Willie Stark among other operas from me, and whose opinion I valued very highly. And also, he was from Philadelphia, so I knew that the terrain would be a little alien to him, but I wanted to find out if a person not brought up in that area of the country found the story too regional, or did they find the universality in it. Well, he loved the story from the beginning, kept it on his bedside table for reading and started talking to me about doing it an opera out of it. And I said, “Oh no, I don’t know that I can do that.” Because the novel, charming and delightful as it is, is really not a novel. It’s a series of episodes, not necessarily linked. So it had that just enormous challenge right from the beginning. And so it took three or four readings before I really began to sort of vaguely see a way to make a spine out of all of this. It was the most difficult material I’ve ever had to deal with, because of that particular lack of a through line, as we call it. I came up with the idea of focusing everything on the relationship of the leading character Rucker Lattimore in my version, and his seamstress whom he employed, or hat maker, Love Simpson and the story of their relationship which starts out simply as a marriage of convenience and develops into a genuine and marvelous love affair, and especially for him, in a declining time of his life. It’s an opera that I have a great and personal fondness for.

Jo Reed: Well I think that’s true for most of your audience as well, that opera is, again, it’s had a fantastic success, and appeals to audiences across the country.

Carlisle Floyd: Thank goodness, yes. It’s had a remarkable success, yes.

Jo Reed: Now opera, in the United States, certainly has undergone changes between the times of Susannah and Cold Sassy Tree.

Carlisle Floyd: <laughs> To put it very mildly yes.

Jo Reed: <laughs> Can you talk about some of those changes?

But I think when I say, “Phenomenal growth of opera that’s occurred over the last 30 years,” I’m speaking of from about 1974. And what then was, let’s say three opera companies and a few fairly obscure regional companies, has become at least, I think at the last count, over 130 opera companies in this country.

Carlisle Floyd: Well, I think what’s happened in opera over the last 30-40 years, but certainly the last 30 years, is in a way, and I use the word advisedly, phenomenal. But my career began in the mid-fifties. There were only three opera companies that could have launched a new opera. And the only one of those three that was even likely to do it was the New York City Opera, because the Metropolitan of course was strongly European in its traditions. And the San Francisco opera was equally European. So there was simply no place for native opera at that time, except the New York City Opera. Nowadays, I could probably name you 30 opera companies who have the necessary prestige to attract press. And national press, for new operas. And I think a great deal of that growth has to do, frankly, with the introduction of super titles. And nothing certainly has ever demystified an art form any faster than that. A number of us had grave reservations initially, but were quickly won over. And I was quickly won over to having super titles in my operas which were in English, because just seeing that the audiences followed it more intently and with greater involvement. So also, a new audience, not opera aficionados but a new, and I always felt a waiting audience, was attracted to the opera house and new opera companies certainly burgeoned all over the country, and so that we have now this very large non-traditional audience for opera, which is very, very exciting for me. And I think the fact we are doing so many new operas now, every season, is very much attributable to the fact that those people, that audience, generally speaking may be leery of a new opera, but not nearly so as our traditional opera audience. And they’re usually willing to give it a try, and if it’s in their own language, and if it’s dealing with issues and people that they recognize, I think all the better. I remember a woman coming up to me in Arizona, in Phoenix, after a production of Of Mice And Men, with this puzzled look on her face, at the after opera party, and she said to me, “Mr. Floyd,” she said, “This is really real.” <laughs> And, I was amused and also enormously complimented.

Jo Reed: Well you had said, one of your goals, one of your career goals, was to expand the audience for opera, and I think it’s—-

Carlisle Floyd: That is certainly correct.

Jo Reed: Very fair to say that you succeeded, more than succeeded in doing that.

Carlisle Floyd: Well, that’s one of the reasons I went into opera, which was an earlier question of yours. I had always had the feeling that you could engage an audience dramatically as well as musically. Because we had a huge audience, untapped in America, that had been brought up on films, and also theater. Simply, I knew too many well-educated people, and opera was not a part of their lives. They may go to the theater, they certainly went to the best movies, but opera hadn’t been a part of it. And I just knew, I felt, that there had to be a very large untapped audience out there for opera that was presented with real dramatic fidelity, and with singers who are wonderful actors. And that became the case with the American singers, starting with the generation after World War II. It really revolutionized opera. And I think we see the results of that very much today. And I think that part of the reason for the enormous growth of opera and opera companies in this country. Or the American singers themselves, a great deal of credit has to go to them.

Jo Reed: Well, that has to has it’s parallel in the growth of music programs in colleges and universities across the country, like the one that you started with David Gockley at the University of Houston?

Carlisle Floyd: Yes. And ours was one of the very first. I think the first to have a year round program in which there was a course of study mapped out. A definite curriculum, and which continues to be the case. You can find them at almost any opera company, I think it’s very hard to find an opera company now a days who doesn’t have an apprentice program. At that time, what we knew best was the apprentice program in Santa Fe, which of course was simply a summer job for operas. And also, they were hired with the expectation that they would also serve in the chorus. So when we began the Houston opera studio, I implored David, as a matter of fact, made it a condition as far as I was going to involved with it, that the singers not be choristers. And he squirmed, but he understood why I was making this provision. I thought it added a great deal to the apprentices regard of themselves. And also, they did not feel that they were, in a sense, singing for their supper. And I think psychologically it was a very big step forward.

Jo Reed: The NEA created an award for the first time in more than 25 years, when it decided to honor lifetime achievement and individual excellence in the field of opera. That was 2008, and you were one of the original four honorees. What did receiving that award mean for you?

Carlisle Floyd: Well, it was a tremendous honor, tremendous recognition. But, number one, I’ve thought about it since I knew that we were going to talk, it was one of the most memorable nights certainly in my professional career, and there have been some memorable nights, I’m happy to say. Because it was a reconnection with people I had known for decades. But as much as anything I thought, it was a tribute, and also at the same time an acknowledgement of this phenomenal growth that we’ve seen in opera, over the last 30 or 40 years. And it was making this public, it was honoring it publicly. And in a sense saying, “We have arrived, you the opera going public has made this possible, and we would like you to share in these honors with us, and these people who have contributed.” And I must say, a warmth and generosity of spirit in the audience that night, that believe me, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered any other place.

That was composer Carlisle Floyd, recipient of the 2008 NEA Opera Honors. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Excerpt from the opera Susannah, Ain’t it a Pretty Night, composed by Carlisle Floyd and performed by Phyllis Curtin, used courtesy of VAI Music.  Excerpt from Cold Sassy Tree, “Sometimes the pain o’ missin’ him” – composed by Carlisle Floyd and performed by John McVeigh and the Houston Grand Opera, used courtesy of Albany Records. 

The Arts Work podcast is posted every Thursday at Next week, author Amy Tan discusses The Joy Luck Club.  To find out how art works in communities across the country keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEArts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

All excerpts used by permission of Boosey and Hawkes, an Imagem Company. 

Carlisle Floyd talks about his extensive career in opera, including writing some of his most famous pieces, Susannah, Of Mice and Men, Willie Stark, and Cold Sassy Tree. [29:55]