Opera Daily 🎶 — Susannah by American composer Carlisle Floyd
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: