|About this Recording
2.110381 - FLOYD, C.: Susannah [Opera] (St. Petersburg Opera, 2014) (NTSC)
Carlisle Floyd (b. 1926)
Opera in Two Acts
Premièred 24 February 1955 in Ruby Diamond Auditorium at Florida State University
Susannah – Susan Hellman Spatafora, Soprano
St. Petersburg Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Filmed at the Palladium Theater St. Petersburg, Florida on 31 January and 2 & 4 February 2014
Sponsored by the Helen Torres Foundation and an anonymous friend of St. Petersburg Opera
Introductory Note by the Composer
I decided to write my full-length opera in the spring of 1953 when a friend suggested I write an opera based on the Apocryphal Book of Susanna and the Elders, updating it to the present. I was slightly familiar with the story of the innocent and virtuous girl being spied upon while bathing by lustful elders who falsely accused her of being an adulteress and stirred the community against her.
Although a friend had offered to write the libretto, I soon realized that ideas for expanding fragments of the story into a continuous narrative had begun to coalesce intrusively into my mind. For instance, it occurred to me to set the entire action against the backdrop of a summer revival meeting in the mountains of Tennessee. Such meetings, I knew from my childhood, provided these rural people their meager allotment of excitement for one week each year, almost always in the stifling heat of midsummer.
A week-long revival meeting immediately suggested accompanying events: the Elders’ search for a baptismal creek in which Susannah would be caught bathing; a picnic supper on the church grounds at which an unsuspecting Susannah would first be made aware of her public ostracism; that crucial “hinge scene”—the revival meeting itself—on which all subsequent events would turn; and the final murder of Blitch in the bythen infamous creek during a baptism service.
After spending an evening creating names for the various characters, and outlining the “spine” of the story, I wrote the libretto in ten days and completed the music in roughly three months.
I began composing the music by first writing the arias of Susannah, a practice I have never repeated since. I recall vividly that I labored over Susannah’s first act aria (“Ain’t It a Pretty Night”) while the quasifolk song in Act Two (“The Trees on the Mountains”) came very quickly.
When I think of the time and effort I expend on a full-length opera now, usually two or three years, I feel a little embarrassed and even guilty over finishing Susannah in six and a half months (which includes about three months for the orchestration).
I can only say that it was the impetuous and heedless confidence of a twenty-eight year old who had no composing reputation to lose, and certainly very little to draw on in the way of experience in, or exposure to, opera itself, that made it possible.
As a composer of operas, I was a neophyte in a fascinating but uncharted world, guided only by a deeply-felt conviction that I could write words and music for the theatre.
Looking back six decades later, I am awestruck by the public’s validation of my youthful vision: Susannah has become the second most performed of all American operas (after Porgy and Bess).
And, after all these years, it is still thrilling for me to see Susannah performed, whether on the great stages of Europe or in intimate houses such as the St. Petersburg Opera House.
I am especially grateful to have lived long enough to see digital recordings created of my sixty-year old opera. My thanks to the St. Petersburg Opera for producing its DVD of Susannah, ensuring my opera, that began so long ago, will enjoy a long life, well into the future.
A Note From the Stage Director
Live performances are by definition ephemeral; sand through our fingers. As soon as they have happened, they are gone—a sensation, a feeling, a memory. I am very proud to share the contents of this DVD, a labor of love from all involved, which attempts to defy ephemera by capturing this production in one convenient, digital time capsule. This is the first commercially available video of Carlisle Floyd’s seminal opera, Susannah. It is presented by a small, yet mighty, regional company on the rise: St. Petersburg Opera (Florida, not Russia)—a company with ambition, intelligence and passion for the art form.
When we embarked on this production, there was no talk of an audio recording, a video capture, much less, a DVD release. Yet, on the day before our Wednesday final dress rehearsal and our Friday opening, a generous patron enabled us to investigate the last-minute possibility of finding a video production company to jump on board immediately and record the performances. We called Curtis Graham of Greyhouse Films who met us at the theatre within the hour. By the next day, he had a five-camera crew together and recorded Wednesday’s rehearsal as well as all of the performances.
This is not HD from The Met—and that is not an apology. This is a rare glimpse at the gem of one small opera company’s production of Susannah. The lighting is for the stage, not for video. We did not have microphones all over the stage or on each performer; we had only two, at the back of the house. Kudos to the Palladium Theatre’s technical wizard, Christopher Spatafora, for achieving as good a sound balance as we did. The cameras were positioned where they would not be in anyone’s way. Again, not excuses—simply remarking on how this DVD represents this production in exactly the way our St. Petersburg audiences experienced it for those few fleeting days in early 2014.
We have kept Maestro Floyd’s regionalized language in the sub-titles—what you read on the screen is exactly how Floyd wrote the libretto. It is noteworthy that Floyd wrote both words and music for this opera—a rarity in any of the performing arts.
Huge thanks must go out to the aforementioned patron for enabling this endeavor, to Maestro Mark Sforzini, Nancy Preis and their St. Petersburg Opera Company for having the courage to do the level of opera they do and the guts to scramble at the last minute to create this lasting memory. Thanks also to Boosey and Hawkes, Floyd’s publisher, for granting permission and Naxos Classical for distributing our efforts. We also must thank our terrific production team for creating the spare yet evocative environment in which to house not only the opera, but an onstage orchestra of 35.
DVDs of theatrical productions capture not only a given show but also the performances in that production. I am especially proud of this cast—starting with the chorus, many of them nonprofessionals, for their commitment to the very difficult task of delivering the believable religious fervor that is required for this piece to work on as honest a level as I hope we’ve achieved. From our (wonderfully performed) horribly ascetic Elders, to Scott Wichael’s yearning Little Bat, to Anthony Webb’s powerful Sam, to Todd William Donovan’s stunningly authentic Blitch, to Susan Hellman’s radiant, pitch-perfect Susannah—these performances are worthy of capturing and sharing. Each of these performers represents hundreds of talented artists working in regional opera today who are rarely seen by a wider audience.
I would be remiss if I did not thank the gracious, classy, always-the-gentleman, Maestro Carlisle Floyd—the father of American Opera. I had the great honor of directing Maestro Floyd’s Of Mice and Men the year before I had the great honor of directing this production of Susannah. Maestro Floyd was in residence at the final rehearsals and opening nights for both productions—further honors I will always cherish.
The conductor of Susannah and executive director of St. Petersburg Opera, Mark Sforzini, juggles many impressive musical endeavors simultaneously. Mark had an orchestra rehearsal for another company on the night he was supposed to interview Carlisle so I was granted the opportunity to lead a discussion with the congenial, charming composer/librettist—an extra on this DVD. Hearing about the background of Susannah from the Maestro himself is a treasure which we can all now savor.
No expression of appreciation for Maestro Floyd would be complete without also extending it to his niece, travelling companion and business associate, Jane Matheny.
The destruction of innocence by hypocrites is a story as ancient as it is current. Even though Carlisle wrote this opera over 60 years ago, and even though he based it on the Biblical apocrypha, it rings shockingly true today. The town elders lie so unabashedly about Susannah not only to their community but also to themselves. Reverend Blitch goes from praying for Susannah’s soul to preying on her soul. These types of people represent warnings we must heed. Watching William Todd Donovan’s eventual remorse and Susan Hellman’s devastatingly moving final moments, are testaments to the power of writers like Floyd, opera companies like St. Petersburg’s and all artists who contribute to this venerable art form. They give so much of themselves to create truth in art as a reflection of our world. Let us not let them dwindle. Let us fight to support the arts—in all forms—lest we as a society forget the power they have for telling stories so vitally important to our cultural and moral landscape.
I have been a fan of Carlisle Floyd’s music since I was a student at Florida State University in the late 1980s. My college days did not overlap with Mr. Floyd’s tenure at FSU, but the university opera program mounted a performance of Mr. Floyd’s Susannah during my freshman year. I was a bassoon major, eager to play in a professional orchestra, expecting that to be my career. But Mr. Floyd’s work and other opera performances planted a seed in my soul that has blossomed down a different path. After fifteen years as principal bassoon with The Florida Orchestra, I took on the enormous task of founding an opera company and am thrilled to be producing and conducting marvelous operas, including Susannah.
What caught me years ago was the melodic beauty of the score. What stuns me now, having studied and worked with the score, is the excellence of the musical writing in Susannah. That Carlisle Floyd wrote this opera when he was barely out of college and was a full time professor at FSU, is impressive. That it is a finely crafted, carefully constructed composition full of musical insights, bitonality, and sophisticated rhythms was a revelation. And that Carlisle Floyd wrote his own libretto, filled with the language of Appalachia but a powerfully moving essay on intolerance, religious hypocrisy, social harassment and alienation is an inspiration. There is a reason this opera is the second most performed American opera (behind only Porgy and Bess). It is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Mr. Floyd has continued to write operas, and indeed, just finished his twelfth. Even at ninety plus years old, he is still productive, still creating art, and is a model for me.
This production of Susannah was a joy to put together. I was impressed by Michael Unger’s direction of Floyd’s Of Mice and Men in Sarasota and was eager to engage him for Susannah. His thoughtful and intelligent direction and his meticulous editing of this DVD have brought our shared vision to life. His kindness and patience are much appreciated. And when you can work with musicians of the quality of Todd Donovan, Susan Hellman Spatafora, and the rest of the cast, chorus, and orchestra, the hard work is all worthwhile. A lot of people helped along the way, from smart technical people, to financial backers, to support staff who kept me sane when things were in danger of sliding out of control. My heartfelt thank you to all!
Written during the McCarthy era, Susannah is based loosely on the Apocryphal tale of Susannah and the Elders.
In New Hope Valley, Tennessee, Susannah—a pretty and well-mannered young woman of humble origins—is faced with hostility from her church community. The opera opens at a square dance given by her church; a group of wives, jealous of Susannah’s beauty and the attention it brings from their husbands, are gossiping about her. Mrs. McLean, one of the wives, states that you can’t expect more from someone who was raised by her drunken brother. Finally, the Reverend Olin Blitch, newly arrived to lead the congregation, enters and asks Susannah to dance despite the gossip.
Later that evening, Susannah tells her admirer Little Bat—son of Mrs. McLean and her husband, an elder of the church—about the dance; Little Bat leaves abruptly once her brother Sam returns from hunting.
The next morning Susannah is innocently bathing naked in the creek near her home; she is discovered by the elders, who are searching for a baptismal stream. They conceal their lust with outrage and tell the community of her wickedness.
Susannah arrives at a church dinner that evening and is sent away, much to her confusion.
Later, as she is pondering why she has been shunned, Little Bat tells her that the elders have denounced her for bathing in the nude and admits that he was coerced into saying she seduced him.
Sam informs Susannah that she must make a public confession in order to be absolved.
Though she claims she has nothing to confess, she goes to the service where Olin Blitch is preaching. When she is singled out to come forward, she runs away.
Once the service has ended, Reverend Blitch goes to Susannah’s house and offers to pray for her soul. Upon discovering that her brother is away, Blitch rapes her.
The next day Blitch, having discovered that Susannah was a virgin, tries to convince the Elders that she is innocent but without confessing how he knows. They dismiss his assurance outright. He then throws himself at Susannah, begging for forgiveness which she refuses to give.
When Susannah tells Sam about the rape, Sam threatens to kill Blitch and leaves for the baptismal service, carrying his shotgun. Convinced that Susannah led her brother to murder, the community heads to her house to drive her out of the valley. However, Little Bat has warned her in advance and when the vigilantes arrive she is waiting with a shotgun. They retreat, but she has effectively severed her ties with her community and the world.
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