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MemberOctober 1, 2021 at 2:15 pm
Composer Carlisle Floyd, widely viewed as a founding father of American opera, died Thursday at age 95 in Tallahassee, Fla. His death was announced by his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, which did not share the cause of his death.
Floyd’s operas, which numbered more than a dozen, were steeped in southern culture, examining the post Civil War South, the Great Depression and small-town life. Works such as Susannah, Of Mice and Men and Cold Sassy Tree opened opera houses to a distinctly American repertoire. He also wrote his own librettos.
He will be known as one of the great, great American composers of all time.
Floyd was only 28 years old when Susannah debuted in Tallahassee in 1955. In college, he was a pianist and a playwright, until he began thinking about mixing his own words and music together.
“When I started out in this business, in the ’40s as a kid, really, what I felt that I would love to help develop, was a serious musical theatre. Create our own musical theater for our own time and for our own audiences,” he told NPR in 2000.
Susannah, set in the south and based on a Biblical story, was serious musical theatre. But the late soprano Phyllis Curtin, who created the opera’s title role, said that not everyone thought so at the time.
“Carlisle’s opera was largely being 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 northern classical music establishment bias against Floyd. He grew up in South Carolina, the son of a Methodist minister. Or it might have been because Susannah includes music like the “Jaybird Song.”
It sounds like a jaunty Southern folk song, but it’s not. It’s Carlisle Floyd’s own music. The words, however, come from the composer’s childhood.
“It’s a bit of Southern doggerel that my grandfather used to sing to me when I was a kid, actually,” Floyd recalled. “I thought it was hilarious, and I simply set it to music.”