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This week is all about 20th & 21st century opera.
If you missed the first post in this series where we covered Doctor Atomic by John Adams, you could find it here. In that post, I discussed a bit of my struggle with sharing some of the contemporary pieces (and continued the conversation with some readers in the comment section on that post). I shared how I often feel like modern pieces force me to work too hard. And that maybe that’s because I like my coffee black versus with milk and sugar? 🤷🏻♀️
While I didn’t mention it in my first post, I think it’s important to note that within the modern or contemporary opera category, pieces can look and feel very different for one another. Some say that anything goes for opera composers in the 21st century, leaving a lot of room for loving an opera and also not loving an opera (which is ok!).
In our last post, we stretched the rubber band and went all the way to 2005 (which is a far distance from the post before where we covered The Marriage of Figaro from 1786). For today, we are going to the mid-1950s, when the American composer Carlisle Floyd premiered his most well-known work: Susannah. 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 Phyllis Curtin).
We’re listening to Renée Fleming sing the title role in a studio recording of “The trees on the mountain” from Act II of Carlisle Floyd's 1955 opera, Susannah.
Susannah is a plainspoken opera, relying on southern dialect with the words and music working in perfect harmony as Floyd takes most of the musical rhythms from the natural inflections of speech.
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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. The wives of the church leaders are super jealous of her, say she is dangerous, and spread a rumor that she slept with one of the boys in the town.
In Act II, a preacher named Reverend Blitch tries to convince her to make a public confession to something she did not do, but she resists and runs away from the church (it turns out Blitch was also a monster). At home, she sings, “The trees on the mountains are cold and bare”. In the end, Susannah is free from the dangerous world she was living in, but it feels like it came at the expense of her innocence.
There is no way you can listen to this aria and not sense the dread that Susannah is feeling. It’s devastating but so beautiful.
The road up ahead lies lonely and far,
There’s darkness around me and not even a star
To show me the way or lighten my heart,
Come back my lover I fain would start.
Still interested? Want more?
Susannah is one of the most-performed American operas of all time.
Below is an interview with Carlisle Floyd. He talks about his influences as a composer and librettist well as Susannah’s beginnings (which he created with a particular audience in mind – the audience that didn't go to opera).
What did you think of this aria? Please share thoughts that come to mind in the comments, especially as you compare it to the first piece in the series. There are no wrong answers!
See you next week where we will be back to the Classical and Romantic periods with something lighter!
Thank you again for listening,
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Norman Treigle and Marilyn Niska appeared at City Opera (1972). Treigle was phenomenal and Niska was fine. The clip on Floyd is good; right below it was a 1958 excerpt with Treigle that is off the charts and Phyllis Curtain in a cameo. Flawed but unforgettable viewing.