Every performance of Boheme Opera Company in Trenton’s War Memorial is a special challenge because of the size and shape of the stage, says Sandra Pucciatti, the company’s managing director. “What do you do with a stage that’s 50 feet wide and 26 feet deep? It has no depth. That really takes away from the ability to transport an audience. When people come, they’re looking for scope. Meanwhile, we’re solving the problem of dealing with the bodies on the stage.”
I’m surprised to learn about the limitations. Boheme has handled the space so skillfully that I perceived their predominantly front-and-center placement of singers to be a deliberate artistic choice, rather than a constraint of the theater. Increasingly adept at handling physically difficult conditions, the company seems to have sought a new challenge to replace the solved one. That new challenge comes in the form of shifting repertoire.
Boheme’s staple during its 16 years of existence has been traditional Italian and French works. With Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” to be performed on Friday and Sunday, April 28 and 30, at the War Memorial, the company breaks out of its former stylistic boundaries. Floyd’s 1955 opera transfers the biblical story of Susannah and the Elders to an isolated community in Tennessee. Artistic director Joseph Pucciatti conducts. Adina Aaron sings Susannah, Daniel Okulitch is Olin Blitch, Kenneth Gayle is Sam Polk, and Brian Downen plays Little Bat. Benjamin Spierman directs.
Pucciatti explains the company’s change of direction. “It was time,” she says. “When you repeat repertoire, you need fresh casts and fresh ideas. We figured we might as well depart from traditional Italian and French repertoire; a lot of our loyal patron base wanted us to. And we’ve grown to the point artistically where we can handle it. We’re taking a risk, of course. Don’t forget, we’re in a town sandwiched between big metropolises that have no fear — New York and Philadelphia.”
Why “Susannah,” I ask, and Pucciatti singles out its American qualities. “All the elements of Americana are found in ‘Susannah.’ It has some of the most beautiful American music. And it has a really soulful understanding of backwoods America, I think, because Floyd lived it. The characters are riveting. And then there’s the pointedness and timelessness of the opera.” Pucciatti knows the opera well. “As a concert pianist I’ve accompanied every aria in the show,” she says.
The opera opens at a square dance in New Hope Valley in the mountains of Tennessee. The vivacious and beautiful Susannah Polk is the center of attention. The malicious Mrs. McLean predicts a bad end for her and her older brother, Sam. An itinerant preacher, Olin Blitch, arrives to conduct a revival meeting; he promises to pray for Susannah’s soul. Despite the disapproval of his parents, Little Bat McLean walks Susannah home from the dance.
The following day, the four Elders see Susannah bathing naked in a creek. They denounce her. Little Bat’s parents persuade him to claim that Susannah has seduced him.
At a church meeting Blitch singles out Susannah and urges her to confess her sins and find redemption. She runs from the church. Blitch follows her home and seduces her. Having discovered her virginity, he attempts to convince the Elders and their wives of Susannah’s innocence without implicating himself.
When Susannah’s brother returns from a hunting trip she tells him of Blitch’s seducing her. He grabs his gun, goes to the creek where Blitch is conducting baptisms, and kills him. The villagers approach Susannah’s farm. She threatens them with a gun. As they disperse she stands alone in the doorway.
In a telephone interview from his Tallahassee, Florida, home, composer Carlisle Floyd talks about how his own background helped shape the opera. “I was writing about an area of the country that I was familiar with. My father was a Methodist minister, and during the depression we lived for five years in the Sand Hills section of South Carolina. It was a poor area that had been a primeval beach. It was sandy and hilly and infertile. George Washington had been there and said that nothing could possibly grow but scrub oaks. New Hope, which I invented as a setting for ‘Susannah,’ was even more severe. I wanted an area that was isolated and was a law unto itself.”
Although he wrote the opera during the McCarthy period, when the senator from Wisconsin generated conformity by spreading fear, Floyd says that he did not intend “Susannah” to be a political statement. “I was a young college professor at the time. There was something coercive in the air. I attributed coercion to the elders of New Hope. If you live in a small town in the south you know all of your neighbors, and it’s marvelous; but they know everything about you. There’s a monolithic morality and an absence of diversity.”
Pucciatti confirms Floyd’s take on “Susannah.” “It’s not a political statement,” she says. “Floyd was more touched by the interactions between ill-informed and inexperienced people. He deals with emotions and human conditions that take place all the time.”
“I was not consciously thinking of politics,” Floyd says. “But nobody who lived through the McCarthy era was not affected by it. The atmosphere of coercion, unfortunately, does not go away. It’s more frightening now than at any time before.” His wish is that “Susannah” audiences attend because they are looking for “an absorbing evening in the theater.” He adds, “If they take away any parallels to the present day, that’s all the better.”
Born in Latta, South Carolina, in 1926, Floyd will be 80 years old in a few weeks. His minister father was married to a housekeeper who was a pianist in college. “As I look back,” Floyd says, “I realize that the family was a great deal more musical than most. My mom played piano, and her family used to love to sing together. I learned semi-classical music from her and became aware of more serious music.”
Piano is Floyd’s first instrument. “I decided at age three that I wanted to learn piano, and I got my mother to give me lessons,” he says. “That lasted about a week. It was too much discipline for a three-year-old.” He started again at 10 with a local teacher. He is the only professional musician in the family. His sister, one year his junior, minored in voice in college.
Floyd earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano and composition with Ernst Bacon at Syracuse University. Beginning his teaching career in 1947, at Florida State University, he concentrated on a career as a solo pianist for eight years. “I had composed as a graduate student. But composition was a sideline until `Susannah.’ When ‘Susannah’ was a success, I abandoned dreams of a solo piano career. You have to stay in trim for solo playing.”
He considers piano a particularly desirable background for a composer because of its wide musical scope. “With piano you begin to conceive orchestrally. You have to think of voicing, balance, and register.”
In 1976 Floyd moved to the University of Houston, where he co-founded with David Gockley the Houston Opera Studio, a training and performance program for young singers, their coaches, and accompanists. The program was created jointly by the University of Houston and Houston Grand Opera. He retired from the University of Houston in 1995. As an academic Floyd has taught composition, piano, and libretto writing.
For “Susannah,” and his other operas, “Of Mice and Men” (1970), “Bilby’s Doll” (1976), “Willie Stark” (1981), and “Cold Sassy Tree” (2000) Floyd has been his own librettist. “I haven’t really considered using another librettist,” he says. “I would be much too cranky with someone else. It’s a severe discipline that you learn by doing, by trial and error. It’s not playwriting, but that’s what it’s closest to. The biggest thing in any dramatic art is showing, rather than telling. On the stage, you can get by with much more spoken narrative than in opera. The librettist must objectify the drama through stage action and feeling. It’s the opposite of the novel. The first order of business is to make it just as brief as possible.”
Despite his declaration of libretto independence, Floyd uses his wife, who has master’s degrees in comparative literature and English literature, as a libretto consultant. “She has a wide range of interests,” he says. “I run my librettos past her. She’s a very good play doctor.”
Surveying the opera scene in the half century since “Susannah” appeared, Floyd is pleased with what he sees. “When I started out writing opera, we thought it was incumbent on us to write absorbing operas, as absorbing as movies or TV,” he says. “We didn’t have the leisure of being verbose. The culture was brought up on film and theater. ‘Susannah’ is very brief, as full-length opera s go. It’s like 90-minute movie of the 1940s, and very economically written.”
“Now a new audience has grown up. Titles have made a big difference. There’s been a big shift in opera since the 1950s towards putting equal emphasis on theatrical, as well as musical aspects. Casting with physically appropriate singers has become important. New generations of singers pride themselves on being good actors. The era of stand-up-and-sing-and-do-nothing-else has lost its currency, thank goodness. It’s very heartening to see that happen.”
Floyd’s “Susannah” helped lead the way to the new era. The opera has established a firm footing not only in the United States, but abroad. It was chosen as America’s official operatic entry at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. In 1966 it was the only contemporary opera to be included in the inaugural season of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Company. It has been seen in every major American city as well as in England and Germany, finally making its Metropolitan Opera debut in 1999.
“Susannah” was an immediate hit, an exceptional reward for a composer who was not yet 30, and I ask Floyd if he was surprised. “I was so young and inexperienced that I was both surprised and not surprised at the success of ‘Susannah,’” he says. “As a young person you have to have that kind of blind confidence in what you do. I was prepared for the music world to say ‘Good bye and go home,’ but I thought it had a very good chance. I thought that the story had great dramatic immediacy and hoped that the characters were vivid and sufficiently flesh-and-blood for people to be drawn into their lives.”
Susannah, Boheme Opera, Friday, April 28, 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 30, 3 p.m. Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Trenton. Carlisle Floyd’s tale of jealousy and lust. $28 to $68. 609-581-7200.