Floyd’s Susannah in Boston

Susannah is an opera in two acts by American composer Carlisle
Floyd, who wrote both the libretto and music. The story is very loosely based
upon the story of Susanna and the Elders found in the Apocrypha. In the
biblical story, Susannah is found bathing naked by two elders. They threaten to
claim she is unchaste unless she agrees to have sex with them. Susannah
refuses, is subsequently arrested and about to be put to death, when the
prophet Daniel appears and proves her innocent.

Floyd’s version is much darker and leads to tragedy. He updated the
story to the mid-twentieth century backwoods of Tennessee. Susannah Polk is an
18-year-old innocent girl who lives with her oft-drunk brother, Sam. When she
is discovered innocently bathing naked in the woods by the Church Elders who
are looking for a new baptismal site, they and their wives accuse her of being
a sinner and pressure Little Bat McLean, her young friend, to lie and say that
he was seduced by her. At a revival meeting, Olin Blitch, a traveling preacher,
is unsuccessful in getting her to repent. He follows Susannah to her home to
continue asking her to repent, but he ends up pressuring her into sex. Now
knowing that Susannah was a virgin and that the charges against her are false,
Blitch tries to persuade the townspeople to forgive her, but they refuse.
Susannah’s brother Sam returns home. After he discovers what has
happened, he kills Blitch and runs away. The townspeople try to force Susannah
to leave the valley, but, rifle in hand, she drives them off. Only Little Bat
remains. Susannah pretends to try to seduce him and then pushes him away.

Susannah premiered at Florida State University in 1955 with Phyllis
Curtin in the title role. After many performances in America and abroad, it
finally received its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1999. Today,
Susannah is second only to Porgy and Bess as the most
performed American opera. It likely has entered the permanent operatic
repertory. It is easy to see why. Floyd refers to his works not as operas but
as music dramas. Fortunately, Floyd’s talent as a writer is equal to his
talent as a composer. The end result is a perfect fusion of word and music that
is universal, timeless, powerful and beautiful.

WPM$1E9F.gifAdam Canedy as Olin Blitch.

In mid-April, Floyd reunited with Curtin to be in residence when Boston
University School of Music and School of Theater mounted a new production of
Susannah. The two met and worked with students, took part in portions
of the rehearsal period, and held pre-show discussions before the first two

Although both are now well into their eighties, age has not diminished their
acumen. It was also more than a “do you remember when” experience.
Their comments were illuminating with Floyd, in particular, showing himself to
be strongly opinionated.

In discussing the gestation period of the opera, Curtin recalled how Floyd
had come to her with portions of the partially completed score to ask if she
would be willing to sing the part so as to advance possible production of the
work.. At that time, Curtin had the more established career. Curtin said that
she readily agreed as soon as she saw the music. She also said “I had
just finished performing Salome so I knew how to play a bad girl.”

WPM$6B65.gifAct II, Scene 5 – Susannah facing down the mob.

Curtin also recalled how, in the late 1950’s, she went to Floyd and
asked him to write a concert piece for her. Floyd responded by writing an aria
based on a chapter from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Curtin
said that after the concert at which she sang the aria, the first thing asked
was where is the rest of the opera. The end result was that Floyd then had to
write the complete opera.

It has long been speculated that Floyd wrote Susannah in response
to the McCarthy led witch hunts against communists and subversives in the 1950s
— an operatic equivalent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Floyd has always denied this, but in the question and answer sessions preceding
the performances he softened his position. While continuing to deny a direct
connection, he went on to say that, in writing Susannah, he obviously
was subliminally influenced by the climate of fear generated during the
McCarthy era. He then spent several minutes describing the reign of terror that
descended upon Florida State University during this period, of the campus
committees set up there and elsewhere to insure “correctness”, and
how even the slightest suspicion was enough to destroy a career.

Floyd also revealed for the first time that he didn’t read the
biblical story of Susannah until several years after he completed the opera. He
said that he just took the short summary of an idea that a friend proposed as
the possible subject for a new opera and went from there entirely on his

When asked why he had always written his own libretti, Floyd replied that
that was the only was he could assure that he had total control as to the
outcome of the work. He also said that writing the libretto was the more
difficult part of the process — one that had become even more difficult
for him in recent years, as a result of which he was currently not

When questioned as to whether or not he had gone back and re-written any of
his operas or if he wanted to, Floyd replied that, with the exception of one
opera that was completely re-written for a specific purpose, he had never
re-written or desired to re-write any part of his operas. “Why should
I?” he said, “I’ve said everything that I want to say before
I release a work for performance.” He also quoted Verdi who, during the
difficulties he was experiencing in revising Simon Boccanegra, said to
the effect that “When you rewrite your work it’s difficult not
ending up with a five-legged stool.”

When asked what had surprised him the most since the debut of the work,
Floyd referred to the role of Olin Blitch. “When I saw Mack Harrell in
the role, I didn’t think that it could ever be played in any other way. I
subsequently discovered that the role can be played in many ways.”

When Floyd was questioned as to what advice he would give to sopranos who
sing the role of Susannah, he paused for a few seconds before saying
“Don’t exhibit any self-pity. So much happens to Susannah during
the course of the opera, the audience will fully be with you without your

The Boston University production of Susannah double cast the roles
of Susannah and Olin Blitch, with the remaining roles single cast. All are
students at B.U. Soprano Chelsea Basler and baritone Adam Cannedy headed the
second evening’s cast.

Chelsea Basler was simply superb in the title role. Floyd makes great
demands of any soprano singing the role. The music of the opera appears
deceptively simple but it is not. At times very lyrical in nature, at other
times the brass and woodwinds dominate the music. Consequently, you need a
soprano who can not only spin the lyrical lines and pianissimos of
“Ain’t It a Pretty Night?” in Act I but also be able to
shout down the mob in Act II. Basler met all of the musical demands of the
role. She was also a singing actress, effectively portraying Susannah’s
journey from the young, free spirit portrayed at the start of Act I to the
embittered woman she is turned into by the end of Act II. Particularly
noticeable was the intensity with which she approached the role. Her reaction
to her persecution was simply heartbreaking.

Adam Cannedy made an effective Olin Blitch, with a sonorous and secure
voice. The role was deliberately underplayed, making Blitch a more human figure
as against a Burt Lancaster “Elmer Gantry” type. It is difficult to
cast young baritones in this type of role as they won’t mature vocally
for several more years. Also, in a role that has been defined by such singers
as Norman Treigle and Samuel Ramey, putting a young singer in this role is like
asking a 26-year-old actor to play Macbeth. Cannedy came close to meeting these

Clayton Hilley acquitted himself with full honors in the role of Sam,
Susannah’s brother. He has a gorgeous tenor voice that was used to full
effect. He also was successful in accomplishing the difficult task of
portraying a character who is drunk most of the time he is on stage without
turning into a caricature. The surprise of the evening was Omar Najmi
portraying Little Bat McLean. Only a first year Master’s student at B.U.,
he gave a very strong, secure vocal performance while at the same time, from an
acting standpoint, effectively communicating that Little Bat is mentally

The Boston University Chamber Orchestra was conducted by William Lumpkin.
With thirty-seven members, I don’t know why it is called a “chamber
orchestra.” The first performance indicated that the orchestra needed one
more rehearsal. The orchestra was in secure form for the second night.

Sharon Daniels, who is Director of Opera Programs and the Opera Institute at
Boston University, directed the production. A former soprano who sang the role
of Susannah several times including twice with the composer as stage director,
she was the one responsible for bringing Floyd and Curtin to B.U. for this
production. Under Daniels’ direction, every singer, singing not only in
English but in dialect, could be clearly heard and largely understood while on
stage. The chorus was not a chorus but a group of townspeople, each not only
having its own character but re-acting as to what is going on on stage. Daniels
has long had that great ability to portray individuals on stage as real people
in natural situations and not as actors or singers performing before the
public. Daniels is both a major and unique talent who should be directing in
much larger opera venues.

Credit must also be given to the student production team for the success of
the performances. Many of today’s scenic designers meet
Susannah’s challenge of ten scenes in two acts by giving
audiences near empty stages decorated with a few pieces of ribbon and twigs.
Scenic designer John Traub instead directly confronted the challenge, creating
a natural, woodland glen framing individual sets for each scene while at the
same time allowing for the rapid scene changes that today’s audiences,
condition by television and film, now demand. He was matched in talent by
Costume Designer Elizabeth McLinn and Lighting Designer Mary Ellen Stebbins,
the latter providing nuanced lighting that subtly directed the audience’s
attention to what was going on on stage without the audience realizing that it
was being led.

With the advent of Peter Gelb at the Metropolitan Opera and the series of
productions that are being “updated” in New York and elsewhere to
great controversy, there has been an increase in discussion as to whether opera
or realistic productions of opera has any future in America. If other academic
opera centers are performing at or near the level exhibited by Boston
University in this endeavor, then opera and realistic opera productions both
have a strong future in America.

One last comment. God must have a special love for retired sopranos.
Although Phyllis Curtin has now passed four score and eight years, she remains
a very beautiful woman.

Raymond Gouin

image_description=Chelsea Basler as Susannah [Photo by B.U. Photography]
product_title=Carlisle Floyd: Susannah
product_by=Boston University College of Fine Arts at Boston University Theatre Mainstage
product_id=Above: Chelsea Basler as Susannah

All photos by B.U. Photography