Good morning! 🎆
It’s Sunday, and it’s Independence Day here in the United States. Before the fireworks, we’re going to the mid-1950s, when the American composer Carlisle Floyd premiered his most well-known work: Susannah. We shared another aria from this opera back in November and thought we’d share another piece and celebrate this great American composer.
“Susannah exemplifies what real opera is… a remarkable coming together of people and music.”
Today we’re listening to…
“Ain't it a pretty night” from Act I of the English opera Susannah by American composer Carlisle Floyd. Susannah is one of the most-performed American operas of all time. It is a plainspoken opera, relying on southern dialect with the words and music working in harmony (as Floyd takes most of the musical rhythms from the natural inflections of speech).
Based on the biblical story “Susannah and the Elders,” the opera is set in an Evangelical community in rural Tennessee. Susannah is a young, hopeful 18-year-old girl who has inadvertently incited her church elders’ lust by doing nothing other than being herself.
In this aria, Susannah is talking on her porch to her friend, Little Bat. She looks at the stars and dreams about what it would be like to leave her hometown and travel beyond the mountains. While Susannah’s experience and the story are painful to witness as they unfold throughout the opera, it’s impossible not to be moved as she sings of her hopes for the future, of her excitement to see the world. We are listening to Renée Fleming singing the aria (she performed the role of Susannah at its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1999 with Samuel Ramey).
📺 Watch and listen here (6 minute listen) Soprano Renée Fleming singing “Ain't it a pretty night” live at 20th annual Richard Tucker Foundation Gala, 1995
Ain't it a pretty night!
The sky's so dark and velvet-like
and it's all lit up with stars.
It's like a great big mirror
reflectin' fireflies over a pond.
Look at all them stars, Little Bat.
The longer y' look, the more y' see.
The sky seems so heavy with stars
that it might fall right down out of heaven
and cover us all up in one big blanket of velvet
all stitched with diamon's.
Ain't it a pretty night.
Just think, those stars can all peep down
an' see way beyond where we can:
They can see way beyond them mountains
to Nashville and Asheville an' Knoxville.
I wonder what it's like out there,
out there beyond them mountains
where the folks talk nice,
an' the folks dress nice
like y' see in the mail-order catalogs.
I aim to leave this valley someday
an' find out fer myself:
To see all the tall buildin's
and all the street lights
an' to be one o' them folks myself.
I wonder if I'd get lonesome fer the valley though,
fer the sound of crickets an' the smell of pine straw,
fer soft little rabbits an' bloomin' things
an' the mountains turnin' gold in the fall.
But I could always come back
if I got homesick fer the valley.
So I'll leave it someday an' see fer myself.
Someday I'll leave an' then I'll come back
when I've seen what's beyond them mountains.
Ain't it a pretty night.
The sky's so heavy with stars tonight
that it could fall right down out of heaven
an' cover us up, and cover us up,
in one big blanket of velvet and diamon's.
Featuring Appalachian folk melodies mixed with Protestant hymns and some more traditional classical music elements, the opera officially premiered at Florida State University in 1955 (with a production at New York City Opera a year later with the title role sung by American soprano Phyllis Curtin).
Missed the interview with Carlisle Floyd in the last post? He shares his influences as a composer and librettist and Susannah’s beginnings (which he created with a particular audience in mind – people who didn't go to opera).
“I felt that there was a large audience in this country who had never gone inside an opera house, or seen an opera, and viewed it as something very forbidding and for the cognoscenti alone. I wanted to write an opera that would seem comfortable for that audience, if we could get them inside.
I was very careful to call it ‘musical drama’. It doesn’t bother me at all now to call it an opera, but in those days, the word ‘opera’ had a real stigma about it and suggested something much more remote to the average public.”
Thank you again for listening,
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And if you missed any of the previous pieces from the past month, you can catch up here:
I was thrilled to revisit "Susannah", which I encountered for the first time in these pages. I had never heard of Carlisle Floyd, and I savor the links I uncovered in his biography to my personal history as a daughter of a couple of escapees from Florida. Rather than discuss the music, the uniquely American character and southern folk roots of the opera, I set off to read this week about the composer himself.
Often called "The Father of American Opera," Floyd is now 95 years old. His latest work was nominated in 2020 for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition (https://news.wfsu.org/wfsu-local-news/2020-12-07/carlisle-floyds-final-opera-competing-for-a-grammy. "Prince of Players" is performed by Williams Boggs, Kate Royal, Keith Phares, the Florentine Opera Chorus and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
Another surprise was learning that he wrote the libretto for the film adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's novel "All The King's Men" (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0216534). Robert Penn Warren's "Band of Angels", is another favorite novel of mine about the American South, which was made into a now classic movie starring Clark Gable (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050166/).
Carlisle Floyd's biography offers more leads to his body of work [Carlisle Floyd: Biography (boosey.com)] for anyone who cares to join me in further explorations of his music.
I also list a reference to The Book of Susannah (one of the Deuterocanonical books in The Catholic Bible), on which Floyd's most famous opera is loosely based [The Book of Susannah – What is it? (compellingtruth.org)]
Happy reading and listening!🎵🎶🎵
Carlisle Floyd wouldn't let me get away with just reading about his illustrious life, so I decided late tonight to return to his music. I love Renée Fleming's interpretation of "The Trees On the Mountain" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdN1VH6J6u0). Now I can add to that her "Ain't It A Pretty Night", both lyrics and music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTRAaziIJno). When I inadvertently played the latter aria on two separate YouTube channels, with a delayed start for one, the result was Renée Fleming's lovely voice, and the lush orchestrations of Floyd's music, weaving in and out of, and overlapping each other, as in a round. I liked what I heard so much that I intentionally played, in the same fashion, "I Have Dreamt In My Life Dreams", from Floyd's opera "Wuthering Heights" (1958). This time I went with the voices of Renée Fleming (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbqt0NwUaXA) and Kate Royal (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOMWYswMVW8). Mixing their performances up like this was, yes,"music to my ears"!
Could my post-pandemic future lie in making opera mixtapes, similar to the dance music tapes I used to create years ago? Say, entrepreneur, do you think there's a market for that? Especially among young listeners? (https://https://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Mixtape#Making-a-Modern-Digital-Mixtape)
I found the music of "Flower and Hawk" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flower_and_Hawk), Floyd's seventh opera (1972), to be rather heavy and tedious, I suppose in keeping with its theme. It's redeeming virtue, though, is that the opera led me to the fascinating history of Eleanor of Aquitaine. According to one synopsis (https://www.boosey.com/pages/opera/moreDetails?musicID=33519), the opera's title derives from the royal seal of this extraordinary queen, where she stands with a hawk in one hand and a flower in the other. This makes sense in light of the version I read of her action-packed life (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleanor_of_Aquitaine).
I do wonder why Floyd chose the story of her 15-year imprisonment by her husband Henry II, over all the dramatic episodes he might otherwise have selected from her story. After all, Eleanor of Aquitaine ruled France and England, led a Crusade, married twice, was the mother of eight children (three of whom became kings), was skilled at church and state politics, and was rich and beautiful to boot.
Carlisle Floyd was somehow inspired to portray Eleanor of Aquitaine as weak, vulnerable and almost suicidal during the years she was imprisoned after failing to seize her husband's throne for her son. Carlisle Floyd will neither know, nor would he care, how much this sexist, patriarchal portrayal of "the greatest woman of the Middle Ages" p*ssed me off, but now you do!😠
At any rate, for anyone interested, here's the boring music of "Flower and Hawk"🥱: (Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhcUDNVjTTE) (Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7nELUBemf8)(Part 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaDYaVr6zAE).
I thought I might feel better about "Prince of Players", premiered by the Houston Opera in 2016 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?)v=WwoviFpOyU8). After viewing an excerpt from Act 2 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4v2UVBHZdMA), this opera ain't lookin' too promising either. I won't dismiss these works by Carlisle Floyd, the "Father of American Opera", without further study. I admit, though, that I am ready to run back to the classical composers, and the operas which have stood the test of time.😌