Carlisle Floyd, founding father of American opera, has died aged 95

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Composer Carlisle Floyd, widely regarded as a founding father of American opera, died Thursday at the age of 95 in Tallahassee, Florida. His death was announced by his editor, Boosey & Hawkes, who did not share the cause of his death.

Floyd’s operas, which numbered over a dozen, were steeped in Southern culture, examining the post-Civil War South, the Great Depression, and small town life. Works such as Suzanne, Of mice and Men and Cold sassy tree opens operas to a typically American repertoire. He also wrote his own booklets.

Floyd was only 28 when Suzanne made his debut in Tallahassee in 1955. In college he was a pianist and playwright, until he began to think about mixing his own words and music.

“When I started in this business, in the 1940s when I was a kid, really what I felt I would like to help develop was serious musical theater. To create our own musical theater for our own time and for our own audience, ”he told NPR in 2000.

Suzanne, located in the south and based on a biblical story, was a serious musical theater. But the late soprano Phyllis Curtin, who created the opera‘s title role, said not everyone thought so at the time.

“Carlisle opera was largely called, by all kinds of people, a folk opera,” she told the National Endowment for the Arts in 2008. “Now why a folk opera? ”

Well, maybe it was just a bias of the northern classical music establishment against Floyd. He grew up in South Carolina, the son of a Methodist pastor. Or maybe it’s because Suzanne includes music such as “Jaybird Song”.

It sounds like a cheerful southern folk song, but it isn’t. It’s Carlisle Floyd’s own music. The words, however, come from the composer’s childhood.

“It’s kind of the southern doggerel that my grandfather used to sing to me when I was a kid, actually,” Floyd recalls. “I thought it was hilarious, and I just put it to music.”

Suzanne, which won the New York Music Critics Circle Award, put Floyd’s name on the opera card. It also inspired a younger generation of singers and administrators, like David Gockley, who put on a production of the work as soon as he became general manager of the Houston Grand Opera in 1972.

Suzanne convinced me that there was the opportunity to have an American opera repertoire, ”Gockley told NPR.

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In 2000, Gockley created Floyd’s Cold and sassy tree, another opera house located in the south. Soprano Patricia Racette sang a lead role at the world premiere. She thinks singing Floyd’s quintessentially American operas is a gift. “These stories are ours,” she said from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Even if Cold sassy tree is a comedy, Racette says her substantial first scene, with the haunting air of “Rented Rooms,” is filled with the drama of escaping poverty.

“It has a weird melodic quality that’s so appropriate to what the character is saying,” says Racette. “The marriage of text and music was so essential for [Floyd]. It wasn’t just about emphasizing the text or trying to make it come alive. ”

This was especially true, says Curtin, for “Ain’t it a Pretty Night”, the breathtaking air of Suzanne.

“’Ain’t it a Pretty Night’ is perhaps one of the most natural expressions of anything I’ve ever sung,” Curtin said. “It’s also genuine and real to anyone in the world, I think.”

The aria has been sung by countless sopranos. A few of them have given Carlisle Floyd the compliment of a lifetime.

“Singers in New York told me about it,” Floyd recalls. “They said, ‘Do you know what we call’ Isn’t it a pretty night ‘now? This is the soprano’s national anthem.'”

One more reason Suzanne, one of the most performed operas in the United States, could be a good candidate for the title “The Great American Opera”.

Racette thinks choosing just one is tricky. “If it’s not the greatest American opera house, it is certainly among the great American opera houses,” she says. “He will be known as one of the great, great American composers of all time.”

Floyd received numerous awards during his life, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1956, the National Medal of Arts in 2004, and a National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honor in 2008.


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