Carlisle Floyd’s Prince of Players: a world premiere recording

On August 18th 1660, diarist Samuel Pepys recorded his thoughts
about ‘one Kinaston [sic], a boy’ who ‘acted the Duke’s sister [in The Loyall Subject] but made the loveliest lady that ever I saw in
my life’. Edward Kynaston was, Pepys later observed, ‘the prettiest woman
in the whole house’.

Edward Kynaston (c.1640-1712) was one of the last ‘boy players’ of the
Restoration theatre. As an actor who performed women’s roles, in a highly
mannered style, he attained the pinnacle of theatrical success at the
Duke’s Theatre, London. Kynaston’s star fell when, to please his mistress –
sometime orange-seller and aspiring actress, Nell Gwynn – Charles II issued
a royal decree in 1661, permitting women to perform on the theatrical
stage: “No He shall ere again on an English stage play She.”

Kynaston is the eponymous protagonist of Carlisle Floyd’s opera Prince of Players, first staged at the Houston Grand Opera in
March 2016. The Florentine Opera Company and Milwaukee Symphony have now
released the world premiere recording, on the Reference Recordings

Since his first opera, Susannah, was staged by New York
City Opera in 1956, Floyd has been seen by many as the ‘father of American
opera’, and the success of his operas – lyrical in idiom, focused on
American settings and contexts, principally from the 19th and 20 th centuries – has encouraged younger composers such as Jake
Heggie and Mark Adamo to engage with the genre. Eleven successful operas
later, Floyd professed to have laid his composer’s pen to rest following Cold Sassy Tree (2000), devoting himself to caring for
his wife, who died in 2010. Prince of Players is therefore
something of a late and unexpected bloom of creativity.

Floyd’s interest in Kynaston’s artistic and personal ‘crisis’ was prompted
by Richard Eyre’s film Stage Beauty (2004), which was itself based
upon Jeffrey Hatcher’s play, Compleat Female Stage Beauty (1999).
The opera begins and ends with Shakespeare. In the Prologue to Act 1, in a
theatre newly re-opened by the reinstituted monarch, Kynaston enacts, in
stylised fashion, Desdemona’s death at the hands of Othello, the latter
played by the Duke Theatre’s actor-manager, Thomas Betterton. In the final
scene of Act 2, Kynaston is himself the jealous murderer, the role of the
Moor’s innocent wife being taken by Kynaston’s former dresser, Margaret
(‘Peg’) Hughes. Kynaston’s path from artifice to naturalism, from carefree
success to a catastrophic fall, is charted by royal receptions, managerial
bust-ups, unemployment, drag queen notoriety, a beating at the hands of
thugs employed by the ridiculed fop Sir Charles Sedley, admissions of
childhood abuse, sexual re-orientation, and declarations of love. It’s a
steep ‘learning curve’.

The Prologue to Act 1 presents an ominous timpani pedal and astringent
woodwind wriggles, evoking not just Shakespeare’s envious green-eyed
monster but also the underlying disquiet which threatens Kynaston’s
identity, professional security and personal happiness. Floyd’s idiom is
perhaps less prevailingly lyrical than in his previous operas, with more
declamatory and quasi-speech vocalisation. The diction of cast and chorus
is uniformly excellent – and the Soundmirror engineers have done a
terrific job. There are frequent and lengthy instrumental interpolations
within and between scenes, and at times the pedal points get a little
tiresome. There are also snatches of neo-Baroque counterpoint, song, dance
and fanfare, not quite carried off with the invention and subtlety with
which Britten revisited the Elizabethan past in Gloriana.

As the eponymous Prince of Players, Keith Phares sings with vibrancy and
impact. In the final scene of Act 1, when Kynaston appeals to the King not
to allow women to perform on the stage, he injects an urgent tension into
his warm baritone. But, Floyd’s Sondheim-esque outpouring when the
desperate actor pleads his case – “I was an orphan and a chimney sweep, put
out on the streets before I was eight … I worked and I worked for four long
years until at last I was on the stage where i still perform today. This is
my life and the lives of others like me. I beg you, entreat you, not to
take our lives away.” – is not entirely convincing. Ditto the Copland-esque
folksiness which accompanies Kynaston’s declaration of love and loyalty,
sealed with a kiss, when his lover, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham,
declines to take him as his guest to dine with King Charles. And, Nell
Gwynn’s ‘spirited folk ballad filled with roulades’ seems similarly out of
place as an ‘audition piece’ before the King, though Rena Harms sings with
freshness and vitality, her tone bright and excitable, with a thrilling
gloss that seems to point straight towards the theatre.

In Act 2, Phares adopts a new identity, as ‘Lusty Louise’ – “that cock-
sure madam, that ballsy bawd, that Paragon of beauty and all things
refined” – and fires off an impressive falsetto when impersonating the
disappointed bride who laments, “No balls at all, no balls at all! I’ve
married a man with no balls at all!”

We gain most insight into Kynaston’s dilemma in Act 1 Scene 3 when, on the
stage of the Duke’s Theatre, stripped of makeup, gown and wig, he stands
beside Desdemona’s bed in his underpants, and undergoes ‘an elaborate
ritual of the hands which silently expresses a full range of emotions from
the most exalted joy to the most wracking grief, all mirrored in his face
at the same time’. The orientalism of the flute solo evokes both
strangeness and beauty, the oboe and clarinet then add a certain wistfulness,
while unrest ensues in the dissonant harmonic twists.

Chad Shelton bellows with fittingly pompous sonorousness as the self-righteous
and self-absorbed monarch. Alexander Dobson (Thomas Betterton), Frank
Kelley (Sir Charles Sedley) and Vale Rideout (Villiers, Duke of Buckingham)
vocally capture their characters with perception and skill. The Florentine
Opera Chorus are in assertive voice from their first vibrant cries, “Bring
back the lady, bring back Desdemona!”

But, it’s Kate Royal, as Peg Hughes who outshines all. Initially earnest
and sympathetic, when disparaging the “chattering ninnies with magpie
minds” (Miss Frayne and Lady Meresvale, sung by Nicole Heinen and Briana
Moynihan respectively) who usher Kynaston into the night following his
theatrical triumph as Desdemona, Royal finds touching lyrical sincerity
when singing of Peg’s dreams and her love: “One day, perhaps one day my
love will find its voice!” Her declaration, “More than anything in all the
world, I want to be a player. To perform the roles that you perform, and on
this very stage”, shimmers with truthful feeling, all the more powerful
because of the theatrical unreality in which it is embedded.

The opera’s musical highpoint comes following Kynaston’s beating by
Sedley’s thugs. Here, Floyd’s sensitive writing for bass clarinet, flute and cor anglais is beautifully interpreted by the players of the
Milwaukee Symphony, conducted by William Boggs – and Floyd finds a musical
sincerity that is sometimes lacking.

In his liner book article, ‘Carlisle Floyd and American Opera’, J. Mark
Barker suggests that ‘Though set in 17th-century England, the opera’s
highly charged drama deals with issues that confront us in 21st-century
America – among them, the intricacies of sexual orientation and gender
identity, and the resulting societal consequences.’ I’m not so sure that Prince of Players does ‘deal’ with such issues. The ‘fault’
probably lies with Hatcher’s play, but in its suggestion that Kynaston’s
ability to perform male roles is dependent on a conversion to
heterosexuality, the libretto seems oddly out of kilter with contemporary
mores. Initially, Peg ‘acts’ a woman in imitation of Kynaston. When he
draws from her a more realistic performance, he finds that he’s ‘a man’
after all. His ‘identity’ as a woman – in the theatre and in the bed of
Villiers – is shattered. At the close his whole life seems to have been a
‘work of artfulness’, not ‘art’: his rigorous professional training and his
relationship with Villiers are both presented as deception and
self-deception. As a psychological ‘journey’ it feels rather reactionary,
even regressive.

In an interview in Opera News in March 2016, Floyd explained that
Eyre’s film had excited his musical imagination: “… when I saw the film, I
thought, ‘Wow-this has the basic ingredient I think a libretto really has
to have,’ which is an atmosphere of crisis. The conflict is built in,
through the actions of Charles II and how that affects Kynaston, a young
man who has had a brilliant career. The only thing I changed was that the
film had more humor than I wanted in it.”

That ‘humour’ seems crucial to me. For there is a distinct lack of irony in
Floyd’s opera, such as is present – to judge from the published critical
reviews – in Hatcher’s Restoration-burlesque and, from my own recollection,
in Eyre’s subsequent cinematic adaptation. In that Opera News
interview, the composer described the way the relationship between Kynaston
and Hughes “inevitably becomes something sexual … at least briefly, but
enough that her countering his view of acting, and her denunciation of his
way of overplaying the frailty of women, shakes him up and changes him. He
discovers his anger in that scene, and that taps into his innate maleness.
He realizes that if he’s going to play male roles, he’s going to play them
as a very dominant male.” In Eyre’s film, backstage after the curtain calls
Kynaston remarks, “I ?nally got the death scene right.” So, is Floyd
suggesting that as a ‘woman’ it is Kynaston’s role to be die, and as a
‘man’, to do the murdering? I don’t think that’s the intent, but it’s hard
to evade the insinuation. And, it contradicts Kynaston’s own angry
assertion, when the King remarks on his prowess – “You’re not a performer
for nothing, sir: you almost persuaded me!”: “That was not a performance,
sir: that was my life!”

Hatcher’s title is taken from John Downes’s 1708

Roscius Anglicanus; Or an Historical Review of the Stage from 1660 to

, in which he remarked that Kynaston, ‘he being then very Young, made a
Compleat Female Stage Beauty, performing his Parts so well … that it has
since been Disputable among the Judicious, whether any Woman that succeeded
him so Sensibly touch’d the Audience as he’. What was praised as an art
seems to become something artificial and a cause of shame and disgrace, in
need of ‘correction’?

That said, gender and performance are at the heart of the art form that we call
opera. If in the 21st century we are having conversations about
gender and identity, then – from castrati to en travesti, from
Cherubino to Cantonese opera, from Baba the Turk to Octavian – opera has
relished gender fluidity since the art form was born. Floyd’s Prince of Players is an interesting contribution to the debate.

Opera America

calculate that Susannah is one of the ten most frequently produced
North American operas since 1991 (alongside an eclectic range of works
including Porgy and Bess, My Fair Lady, Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, Candide, Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and Little Women by Mark Adamo). Yet,
performances of Floyd’s operas in the UK are fairly rare, so this recording
is particularly welcome, with its pressing, short scenes, engaging idiom,
fascinating characters and context. One hopes that it’s not too long –
viruses and financial crises permitting – before we get an opportunity to
see a live performance on this side of the pond.

Floyd’s pleasure at having Prince of Players recorded in his
lifetime is evident in the album notes, where he writes, ‘having this
outstanding performance recorded for the world to hear … my 93 year old
heart is filled with joy and oh, so much gratitude!’

Claire Seymour

Carlisle Floyd: Prince of Players

Edward Kynaston – Keith Phares, Margaret Hughes – Kate Royal, Thomas
Betterton – Alexander Dobson, King Charles II – Chad Shelton, Sir Charles
Sedley, Frank Kelley – Villiers, Duke of Buckingham – Vale Rideout, Miss
Frayne – Nicole Heinen, Nell Gywnn – Rena Harms, Lady Meresvale – Briana
Moynihan, Mistress Revels – Sandra Piques, Eddy Hyde – Nathaniel Hill,
Female Emilia – Jessica Schwefel, Male Emilia – Nicholas Hu?, Stage hand –
John A. Stump? , Florentine Opera Chorus (Scott S. Stewart, chorusmaster)
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, William Boggs (conductor)

product_title=Prince of Players – an opera in two acts, by Carlisle Floyd
product_by=The Florentine Opera, Milwaukee Symphony, William Boggs (conductor)
product_id=Reference Recordings, FR-736, 2 CDs [01:35:35]