Susannah

Music by Carlisle Floyd

Libretto by the composer
NEW PRODUCTION

In the backwoods of Tennessee, a beautiful young woman is accused of indecent behavior after she is discovered bathing naked in a stream. Will the charismatic traveling preacher who sets his sights on her soul be her salvation, or her downfall? Carlisle Floyd’s all-American score, which beautifully evokes the work’s rural Appalachian setting, “is unabashedly neo-Romantic” (The New York Times). The radiant Patricia Racette sings the title role, with Brandon Jovanovich as her brother and Raymond Aceto as the hell-raising itinerant preacher. Conductor Karen Kamensek makes her San Francisco Opera debut in this eagerly awaited Company premiere directed by Michael Cavanagh (Nixon in China, 2012).

Sung in English with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including one intermission

Pre-Opera Talks are free to ticketholders and take place in the Opera House in the Orchestra section, 55 minutes prior to curtain.

San Francisco Opera production

Costumes owned by Lyric Opera of Chicago and Houston Grand Opera. The costumes in Susannah are made possible by a generous gift from Abbott Laboratories to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and from Philip Morris Companies, Inc. to Houston Grand Opera as sponsor to its Opera New World program.

Audio excerpts ©Virgin Classics 1994 (724354503924) / performed by Orchestre de l’Opèra de Lyon; Kent Nagano, conductor
“Ain’t it a pretty night?”/Cheryl Studer (Susannah); “The Trees on the mountain”/Cheryl Studer; “Hear me, O Lord, I beseech Thee”/Samuel Ramey (Olin Blitch)


Cast

Susannah Polk Patricia Racette
Sam Polk Brandon Jovanovich
Rev. Olin Blitch Raymond Aceto
Mrs. McLean Catherine Cook
Little Bat McLean James Kryshak *
Mrs. Hayes Jacqueline Piccolino
Mrs. Gleaton Erin Johnson
Mrs. Ott Suzanne Hendrix
Elder Hayes Joel Sorensen
Elder Gleaton A.J. Glueckert
Elder McLean Dale Travis
Elder Ott Timothy Mix

Production Credits

Conductor Karen Kamensek *
Director Michael Cavanagh
Set Designer Erhard Rom
Costume Designer Michael Yeargan
Lighting Designer Gary Marder
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Choreographer Lawrence Pech
Fight Director Dave Maier

* San Francisco Opera Debut

Synopsis

ACT I
New Hope Valley, Tennessee

At a square dance hosted by her church, the beautiful Susannah is the object of gossip: the congregation’s pious womenfolk take exception to the attention that she attracts, observing that it is what they would expect of someone raised by her alcoholic brother. The newly arrived Reverend Olin Blitch ignores the gossip and asks Susannah to dance. Later that night, Susannah tells Little Bat McLean, a troubled young boy who follows her everywhere, about the dance, but he leaves quickly when Susannah’s brother, Sam, comes home from hunting.

The next morning, the church elders discover Susannah innocently bathing nude in the creek they plan to use for baptisms. They denounce her and trumpet her sin to the community. When Susannah arrives at a church dinner that night, she is ostracized and returns home in confusion. Little Bat explains that the elders are angry with her for bathing in the nude and confesses that they forced him to say that she seduced him. Sam, who has overheard their conversation, tries in vain to comfort her.

ACT II

Sam, meeting with Susannah again, says she must attend a prayer meeting to satisfy the elders’ demands. Susannah goes to the church where Olin Blitch is preaching, even though she is innocent. Swept up in the fervent preaching and chanting, Susannah nearly “confesses,” but runs away at the last moment. After the sermon, Olin Blitch comes to her house and offers to pray for her. Discovering that Sam is away, Blitch wears down Susannah’s resistance and takes her into the house.

The next day, Blitch tries to seek forgiveness from Susannah when he realizes she was a virgin. Susannah refuses, and tells Sam what happened. He takes his shotgun and shoots Blitch at a baptismal ceremony. The church community, believing that Susannah has driven her brother to murder, converges on her house, but she repulses them with a shotgun. As they retreat, she is left alone.

Innocence and Experience in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah

Beth Levy

What sort of opera would you expect from the son of a Methodist minister, an aspiring concert pianist, not yet thirty, and a recent addition to the keyboard faculty at Florida State University?

 
You might expect a work with religious overtones and the local color of the southern United States. You would probably not expect one of the greatest success stories in the history of American opera: Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah (1955). The first opera in Floyd’s catalogue after the one-act Slow Dusk (1949) and the full-length The Fugitives (which he withdrew after a single performance), Susannah has received more than 800 performances in its first fifty years, the most of any opera by an American. “I feel a little embarrassed,” Floyd has admitted, “I can only say that it was the impetuous and heedless confidence of a twenty-eight year old who had no composing reputation to lose, and certainly very little to draw on in the way of experience in, or exposure to, opera itself that made it possible.”
 
An accomplished student of creative writing, Floyd has always written his own librettos; even his more recent Cold Sassy Tree (2000) sets his own adaptation of the novel by Olive Ann Burns. As one of the best known composer–librettists since Richard Wagner, Floyd is often asked to offer advice on choosing and shaping operatic material. He notes that, in order to work effectively in a genre where “showing” is more important than “telling,” one must be able to answer the following questions of any good opera plot: “whose story is it and what is the dramatic premise of the material? The answers should be simple to the point of being simplistic....” Although Floyd put this idea into words after the fact, Susannah makes clear that he already understood these aims intuitively at the very beginning of his career: the opera is entirely without subplots and the title character appears in each of its ten scenes.
 
Early in 1953, Floyd rediscovered the Apocryphal story of “Susanna and the Elders” in discussion with a graduate student in English literature and he recalls being immediately struck by its operatic potential: “the innocent and virtuous Susanna’s being spied upon while bathing by lustful Elders who, when she refuses their advances, falsely accuse her of being an adulteress.” After this “basic premise,” however, Floyd’s vision diverged from the ancient text (and from the plot as it appears in G. F. Handel’s oratorio). First, he transplanted the story in time and space, moving it pointedly to “the present” and setting it “against the backdrop of a summer revival meeting” in a remote community in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. More important, Floyd reversed the message of the traditional tale. Instead of the prophet Daniel (divinely inspired to cross-examine the Elders and bring justice to the situation), Floyd’s New Hope Valley is visited by the Reverend Olin Blitch, who himself succumbs to lust despite his terrifyingly fervent religiosity. Susannah thus traces not a story of wickedness punished, but a collective fall from grace: the church congregation becomes a mob, Susannah’s dissolute brother becomes a desperate murderer, the weak-willed fear-filled Little Bat perjures himself, Blitch commits a sin he cannot live with, and Susannah herself is transformed almost beyond recognition.
 
The irrevocable changes wrought in New Hope Valley are rapid, even when measured by operatic standards. By the end of the first scene, almost all the characters are clearly delineated. The acid-tongued Mrs. McLean holds the other the women under her sway, while their husbands vie with one another to dance with the exuberant and attractive Susannah. Mistrust of strangers brings the community’s dancing to a temporary halt at the entrance of Olin Blitch, but his association with the Church gives him immediate and unquestioned moral authority over all subsequent proceedings. Even the physical setting contributes to Floyd’s almost startling efficiency. The stifling summer heat mirrors the suffocating mores of the close-knit community, and the fact that almost all of the action takes place either at the Polk home or on the church grounds reinforces the claustrophobic context of Susannah’s ruin. Reflecting on the pacing of the opera, Julius Rudel (consistent champion of Floyd’s music and conductor for most of Susannah’s many performances at New York City Opera) observes, “There isn’t a wasted note or breath in the entire piece.... To conduct this work is in many ways like leading a religious service. It is critical to move the piece from scene to scene, to keep the drama taut and to let the characters evolve, so that through the cumulative build-up, the audience—the opera’s congregation—is pulled into New Hope Valley.”
 
Like many of Floyd’s other works, including Of Mice and Men (1970), Susannah is a plainspoken opera, relying on a gentle Southern dialect and occasionally incorporating spoken words to great dramatic effect, especially during Blitch’s sermon at the pivotal revival meeting. The directness of Floyd’s prose is matched by his music, which takes the majority of its rhythms from the natural inflections of speech. Lyrical outpourings are few and far between, but heightened declamation makes even routine dialogue memorable. The composer’s melodic lines have endeared him to singers worldwide. While rarely predictable at first hearing, they employ stepwise motion and consonant intervals that spell out the traditional triads of major and minor keys. Even the most surprising utterances quickly come to sound “right.”
 
Much has been made of Floyd’s stylized folk songs—a habit he surely learned from his most important mentor, the composer-pianist Ernst Bacon. Written one year before Douglas Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe, and one year after Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land, Susannah holds its own as an evocation of regional Americana. Floyd has resisted labeling any of his works a “folk opera” along the lines of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), perhaps because of the condescension that often accompanies that label. Yet Floyd’s deployment of folk song gives us crucial insights into his characters. Unlike operas whose characters are strongly stratified along class lines, Susannah presents a more or less uniformly home-spun population. The fiddle tune of the opening scene—which Rudel observes is “startlingly reminiscent” of the Prelude from J. S. Bach’s E-Major Violin Partita—ensures that we see them as capable of sharing a musical language. Yet only Susannah and her brother Sam actually sing “folk” material: the “Jaybird” song of Act I, Scene 2 and the mournful ballad with which Susannah opens Act II, Scene 3. One does not have the impression that the other characters would be incapable of folk feeling—if only their hearts were pure. The fact that neither “Jaybird” nor the ballad return after Susannah’s seduction reinforces the powerful association between folk song and innocence.
 
The disappearance of folk music is only one of the many signposts in the gradual transformation of Susannah at the heart of Floyd’s drama. Even during the opening square dance, when Susannah is only seen and not heard, the seeds of her destruction are readily apparent in the Elders’ incautious admiration and Mrs. McLean’s dark foreboding: “She’ll come to no good, mark my words.” Introduced as an object of desire, Susannah finds her voice in Scene 2, with the opera’s lyric highpoint. The entire scene is framed by the characteristic rising leap of one of the most famous soprano arias in the American repertory, “Ain’t It a Pretty Night.” The freshness of her wonder at the world spills into the childlike “Jaybird” song, which gives a tuneful form to Sam’s pet names for his sister (“little Robin,” “little Sparrow”) and sets up the fateful discovery of Susannah “naked as a jaybird” shortly thereafter. While the Susannah of “Ain’t It a Pretty Night” was eager to see what lies “beyond them mountains,” by the beginning of Act II, her enthusiasm has been stunted by the injustice of her situation. “I ain’t gonna leave this place no more,” she states flatly to Sam, “That’s one thing I know fer sure.” Her next (and last) true aria, the ballad of Act II, Scene 3 shows how drastically her worldview has darkened: “The trees on the mountain are cold and bare. The summer jes’ vanished an’ left them there.”
 
Standing like a pillar between these lyric moments is the fiery revival meeting itself. Justly celebrated as a showpiece for Reverend Blitch, the scene also demonstrates the potentially devastating power of misguided communal enthusiasm. After welcoming the itinerant preacher to New Hope Valley (and not including the ominous quartet of Elders proclaiming Susannah’s wickedness), the chorus has remained relatively quiet until this point. Now its coercive power bursts forth in vociferous repetitions of a revival hymn calling sinners to confession. Floyd minces no words when he describes the actual revival meetings that he experienced as a youngster: “First of all, they’re very frightening—especially for children, but even for grown-ups who buy into their violently mysterious life-and-death proposition. It’s mass coercion to conform, whether people are really convinced of the doctrine or not. You simply bend the knee without question, which is the basis of any totalitarian society.” Measuring his operatic revival against such terrifying originals, Floyd confides: “The only [part of the opera] I ever heard my father comment on was the revival meeting scene, which I think he felt was sacrilegious.... He told me, in front of some other people, that he almost walked out. I think it was because it was real, and he felt, therefore, that I was blaspheming. I intended it to be real. It’s very solemn and also a very sinister occasion.” The destructive power of the revival meeting corrupts even the local landscape, as the pristine creek that welcomed Susannah’s nakedness is sullied, first by the sheer number of baptisms—“the crick must be plum’ spoilt now,” Susannah complains—and finally polluted by the blood of Blitch.
 
In “Ain’t It a Pretty Night,” Susannah had sketched a Tennessee Eden. Older and wiser, her brother Sam sees the community capacity for evil: “They’ll turn this valley into hell,” he predicts at the end of Act I. This vision of a twisted moral order suggests a powerful parallel between the opera’s plot and the cultural context of its conception: the aftermath of the so-called “Red Scare,” during which U. S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and others pursued suspected communists with a combination of religious zeal, innuendo, and intimidation. While distancing himself from any directly political interpretation of his work—“I’m too practical a man of theater,” he says—Floyd admits that the witch-hunts of the 1950s left their mark on Susannah. He recalls, “I did write the work during the McCarthy years, and I lived through the terrors. At Florida State an accusation was tantamount to guilt. We faculty had to sign a pledge of loyalty or lose our jobs. It affected me and informed me emotionally. And there it is in the opera. But I can’t say I put it there.” With the precedent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) in mind, it is easy to see McCarthyism continuing to cast its long shadow over Floyd’s own theocratic parable of 1976 Bilby’s Doll (based on A Mirror for Witches, Esther Forbes’s novel about seventeenth-century Salem).
 
Perhaps because of the politically charged context of its first performance, and almost certainly because of its ingratiating vocal lines and stageworthiness, Susannah has always been a favorite with its casts. The opera’s impact on its early performers is signaled by the fact that the youngest granddaughter of conductor Julius Rudel bears the title character’s name. Norman Treigle (who played Olin Blitch for New York audiences) went one step further by calling his daughter Phyllis Susannah Treigle, after soprano Phyllis Curtain, who created the title role at the premiere and helped bring the work to the New York City Opera in 1956. Despite winning a New York Music Critics’ Circle Award, being selected to represent American opera at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, and achieving resounding successes on stages worldwide, forty-four years would pass before Susannah was invited to that most prestigious of U. S. operatic venues, the Metropolitan Opera, probably thanks to the intercession of such singers as Renée Fleming, who had sung Susannah with the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1993. For some critics, Floyd’s unpretentious tunefulness seemed “out of place” at the Met, where twentieth-century productions have tended to be challenging in design and musical language. Bernard Holland of The New York Times meant it as no compliment when he called Susannah “as simple as it seems,” comparing it to “something small and innocent, some lonely tourist lost in the vastness of Grand Central Terminal.” Yet it is precisely this intimacy and immediacy that has ensured the opera’s ability to speak to audiences in productions far removed from any revival meeting. Its continued popularity speaks for the enjoyment gained and the lessons learned each time Susannah has traveled “beyond them mountains.”

Beth Levy is associate professor of music at UC Davis and the author of Frontier Figures: American Music and the Mythology of the American West.


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Director's Note

Michael Cavanagh

The title character of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah is a child of nature, finding spirituality in the world around her.


For the people of the nearby town, the mountains, streams, and forests exist only to suit their needs. Their religious leader is not interested in spiritual growth, only in the harvesting of souls. An isolated, independent woman who revels in the natural world and rebels against order seems foreign to them, instilling fear, jealousy and distrust. The so-called crime that first unites the community against her, bathing naked in the baptismal creek, is compounded by her refusal to apologize or feel ashamed. Soon other, worse transgressions are invented to use against Susannah. Again, she refuses to confess and conform, despite enormous social pressure.

This lack of humility and refusal to surrender cannot be tolerated. The preacher, newly arrived and determined to keep his place as the sole arbiter of salvation for the community, visits her alone to lead her to confession and contrition. However, he is akin to many in positions of power whose determination to control others merely belies the lack of control over his own desires. Even though he sets out to compel her to bend to society’s expectations, his baser desires soon take hold and he compels Susannah to bend to them instead. His pride has lead directly to Susannah’s fall.

Our production contrasts the complicated beauty of nature with the ordered results of man’s conquest of it. Images of trees, mountains, and the sky are juxtaposed with the clean, straight lines of plank floors, barn-board walls, and the Christian cross with all its weighty symbolism. As the opera progresses and Susannah weakens under siege, the natural world is drained of its color, as though it is withering and drying up along with her. The structure of the space is framed in a folkloric way, and the architectural elements (the Polk farmhouse, the church and the town square) are stylized versions of themselves, retaining a rustic sensibility while slightly distorting reality, to underscore the metaphorical aspect of this parable.
Our setting of Depression-era Tennessee emphasizes this as well: the story takes place just as the conditions that led to the Dust Bowl take hold. All over the Central and Southern states, the unrestricted growth of mechanization in farming techniques caused terrible erosion of the topsoil and left the environment vulnerable to drought, which in turn led to the collapse of the agricultural economy. In the story of Susannah, a child of nature suffers at the hands of mankind. She’s been abandoned, neglected and abused by one father figure after another. We see the skies darken and the world dry up. It’s as though her mother figure—nature itself—has come to exact revenge.
In all of this lies an allegory for our own times and a cautionary tale. If we attempt to control and harvest nature—or our natural selves—only for selfish reasons, we are doomed to a life out of balance and a world teetering on the brink. Individually or as a society, pride really does go before a fall.

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American Icon: Carlisle Floyd Talks About Life and Opera

Robert Wilder Blue

On February 24, 1955, when the final curtain came down on the world premiere of Susannah, Carlisle Floyd’s life changed forever. Until then, the young pianist and assistant professor at Florida State University had no plans to devote himself to composing operas. But, with that moment, the disparate influences and events of his life came together to make his destiny impossible to ignore.


Beginnings

Carlisle Floyd was born in 1926 in Latta, South Carolina. From an early age, he demonstrated creative leanings. At four, he showed exceptional skill in drawing; by seven he was writing short stories. At eleven, he turned his focus to the piano, though practicing had to compete with daily chores and football, basketball, baseball, and boxing. Carlisle’s father, Carlisle, Sr., known as Jack, was a Methodist minister and the family obeyed Christian doctrine (as interpreted by Jack) to the letter. Church attendance was mandatory. There was no reading the newspaper funny pages on Sunday. Alcohol and cigarettes were forbidden. Idleness was a sin and work came first, though Carlisle’s mother, Ida, put down her foot when it came to prioritizing piano-practicing time.

By the time Carlisle was in high school, Ida recognized her son’s talent and convinced Jack to trade in their old piano for a better model. Jack drove Carlisle eighty-five miles from Bethune, where the family had moved, to Orangeburg for weekly lessons, despite gas rationing imposed because of World War II. Around this time, Floyd saw his first opera, Carmen, performed by the touring Charles L. Wagner Company. He was far more impressed by Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano recital in Columbia a few weeks later.

Floyd earned a scholarship to Converse College, where he studied with Francis Bacon. “He came of that group in the 1930s and ‘40s,” said Floyd, “that we might say today was militantly American, which happens when a country is trying to establish its musical independence. He felt we should develop our own culture out of our own materials. I was indoctrinated with that early on and it never occurred to me to question it.” Bacon gave Floyd the best advice a young composer could hear: “Write what you want to write.”

On his first trips to New York in the 1940s and ‘50s, Floyd took in original Broadway productions of Inge’s Picnic, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, among many others. “I loved the theater,” he said. “They all were writing in this super realistic manner, yet they were poetic also. I wanted to emulate that.
“Opera never attracted me in those days,” said Floyd. “I didn’t like how it was done. Drama had lost out. It was dominated by European artists; Americans were considered second-class. Yet, American singers started a revolution in opera, many of them under the tutelage of Boris Goldovsky [impresario, teacher, and founder of the New England Opera Theater]. Boris made singers conscious of their acting. That was part of the new emphasis on drama and theatrical realism. Up to that point, audiences thought of opera as the singer with the spear and the horned helmet.”

Susannah

In 1952, Floyd met Nathan S. “Sam” Blount, a graduate English student at FSU. Blount suggested they team up as librettist and composer and offered the idea of an opera based on the biblical Apocrypha story of Susanna and the elders. Blount and Floyd identified with the story of a heroine who was wrongly accused, a timely parallel in that era of McCarthyism and patriotic paranoia.

Floyd was attracted to the subject because it focused on religious hypocrisy. “It struck fire immediately. We had the idea of updating the action and placing it in the remote Tennessee Valley during the summer revival meetings.” But, Blount procrastinated and did not present a draft of a libretto. Floyd was so anxious to get moving on the project, he wrote his own libretto in ten days.

Looking back on his life up to that point, Floyd seemed destined to write Susannah. “I suppose I was,” said Floyd. “I drew on many aspects of my own experience for it.” Floyd was well familiar with the conservative teachings of the Methodist church and had been forced to attend revival meetings as a child. He had grown up among self-righteous adults who were quick with a judgmental comment or a critical remark, his father providing the closest example.

Floyd completed the score in March, 1954. “With the confidence of a twenty-seven-year-old,” recalled Floyd, “I went to Karl Kuersteiner, dean of the School of Music at Florida State, and told him I’d written an opera and I’d like to see it done there. It’s the kind of brashness you have when you begin a career [he laughs].” Kuersteiner was impressed with Susannah and gave Floyd the authority to engage professionals in the lead roles.

“I was at the Aspen Festival that summer,” said Floyd, “and Phyllis Curtin and Mack Harrell were on the voice faculty. I knew of Phyllis’s career, her dedication to new music, and most recently, her sensational Salome at New York City Opera. I called her up one evening and she invited me over to play through Susannah.”

Curtin, who grew up in Clarksburg, West Virginia, less than a day’s drive from Floyd’s birthplace, had an immediate identification with the character of Susannah. “I remember I was tired when he asked me,” recalled Curtin, “but I told him I’d love to hear it. We read through Susannah and I fell in love with it. I didn’t grow up in the hill country of West Virginia for nothing! I called Mack and told him there was something he had to hear. Carlisle and I went through it again for him and he loved it as much as I did.” They found they both had the same two weeks free the following February and agreed to do the piece.

As preparations for the premiere got underway, FSU president Doak Campbell asked to read the Susannah libretto. After doing so, Campbell and his wife deemed the opera unsuitable for presentation. “That was a very unpleasant and troubling episode,” said Floyd. “They withdrew the funds and suddenly everything was uncertain. [Campbell] was vehement in making accusations that I had written it for the sexual excitement and objected that Susannah must have become pregnant as a result of the encounter with Blitch. He didn’t understand the story at all. I finally called on him directly. I explained that the story was about Susannah’s innocence and he saw he was wrong and allowed the production to move forward.”

Opening Night

I won’t say that the success of Susannah was unexpected,” said Floyd, “but, it was on a scale I hadn’t planned for. My parents sat with the Governor and his wife at the performance. FSU President Campbell was not planning on attending, but when he found out the Governor and his wife were giving the opening night party at the Governor’s mansion, he and his wife were suddenly available.” Audience and critical reaction was nearly unanimous: Susannah was a success. Plans for a New York production began immediately. Erich Leinsdorf had just been appointed music director of New York City Opera and scheduled the opera for the 1956 fall season.

In another twist of fate, Harrell and NYCO were in a dispute about the baritone’s contract. Unwilling to wait for resolution, Harrell had accepted another engagement. “Norman Treigle took the role,” said Floyd. “From that point he made it his own. He was Olin Blitch.”  Susannah won a New York Critics’ Circle Award and was performed at NYCO for five consecutive seasons. As part of the United States’ participation in the 1958 Brussels World Fair, NYCO and Susannah were selected to represent the American performing arts.

“I’ve been enormously pleased with Susannah’s staying power over the years,” said Floyd. “People always respond to something that is human and direct without apology. Certainly that’s the staying power of the Williams and Miller plays. I don’t think anybody nowadays talks about the expressionistic thrust of Death of a Salesman. What sustains it is the fact that it is profoundly human.”

Did Floyd’s complicated relationship with his father give him any hesitations about Susannah. “That’s a logical question to ask. I have to say, it did not. My father was supportive of me from the time I started studying piano in high school,” said Floyd. “Yet, he was also critical. He was in the opening night audiences at FSU and in New York and saw many performances in different places. He never said anything to me about his feelings on the opera. It wasn’t until years later when [Floyd’s wife] Kay asked him about his reaction the first time he saw the revival scene. He said, ‘I almost left.’ Kay adroitly responded that she could see how someone who felt seriously about revival meetings would react like that, which cooled things down. I believe he thought it was an accurate depiction of a revival scene. I still thunder on about that. I don’t want even a hint of parody, with people screaming and rolling around on the floor. I want something solemn and frightening, which is the way I saw it through the eyes of a child. Anything else diminishes the power of the scene. It becomes easy for the audience to say, ‘oh look at those poor, benighted people,’ and not see themselves.

A Fortunate Meeting in Cincinnati.

On July 9, 1971, Floyd attended a new production of his most recent opera, Of Mice and Men, and met David Gockley, the 28-year-old general director-designate of Houston Grand Opera. After the performance Gockley pitched his ideas to the composer over Jack Daniels at Floyd’s hotel: new productions of Susannah and Of Mice and Men, to be followed by a new opera.

“When I met David, he looked like a college sophomore,” recalled Floyd. “What impressed me was his seriousness and his strong intent. He wanted me to do an opera for HGO for the bicentennial. I had several offers from other companies, but had not committed myself yet. When David asked me, I decided to say ‘yes.’

“David has been a marvelous champion,” said Floyd. “[He] wanted first crack at any opera I wrote and then always gave it a wonderful production. We’ve done six operas together [Susannah, Of Mice and Men, plus world premieres of Bilby’s Doll, Willie Stark, the revised version of The Passion of Jonathan Wade, and Cold Sassy Tree].”

How does Floyd feel about being labeled an outsider throughout his career. “It depends on what you mean outsider,” he began. “If you mean someone who doesn’t follow musical fashion, I would certainly plead guilty to that. I found a certain kind of music congenial to me; it never occurred to me to write music that was academically acceptable. I’m by no means the only so-called outsider. I think I have quite a bit of company these days. One of the first things young composers who come to work with me say is that they want to write music people will like, and that’s a thoroughly commendable attitude if it doesn’t mean pandering. Verdi and Handel wrote very likeable music for their publics.”

It’s impossible to deny that Floyd has spent his career working in a genre that exists on the sidelines of American culture. “The artist is something of an outsider in America. I have always felt that America does not value its artists. There is something inherent in our democracy that tends to want to level. We are a curious nation because on the one hand, there is no country that extols the nonconformist, the rugged individual, more than we do. Yet, there is huge pressure toward conformity. That same kind of duality exists in the oppression of the arts.” 

Floyd is working on a new opera based on the life of Edward Kynaston, the last British male actor to appear on stage in female roles. He continues to be motivated by the possibility of communicating a story directly to an audience. “When I was starting out, I said I wanted to create operas in which the drama was tight and forward-moving, as you found in theater and film. I would hope an audience would be absorbed by what they are witnessing on stage and see what I am presenting as a deeply human experience.

“When Willie Stark had its premiere at the Kennedy Center, Illinois Congressman [Sidney R.] Yates was seated next to me. After the opera was over, he said to me, ‘I was looking forward to having a doze at the opera. I didn’t blink.’ I told him he could not have given me a greater compliment.”
 

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Coming Home: Patricia Racette

Roger Pines

This season’s Susannah, Patricia Racette, is celebrating the 25th anniversary of her glorious association with San Francisco Opera.


Patricia Racette’s career is one of the most remarkable of all SFO success stories. The New Hampshire-born soprano has risen from the company’s young-artist ranks to star in a vast repertoire with the world’s most prestigious opera companies. But no matter how far afield she travels, her artistic life invariably finds its anchor at SFO, where her 31 roles have been as varied musically and dramatically as Luisa Miller and Jenůfa, Marguerite and Dolores Claiborne. The artistry Racette brings to the SFO stage is limitless, whether in vocal prowess, stylistic range, or emotional depth.

The soprano is returning this season for her latest challenge – the vibrant, restless heroine of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. Racette has sung this role only once before, as a 19-year-old college student. “It’s always a gift to be able to sing in one's native language,” she declares, “albeit with a Tennessee accent in this case!”
Racette’s Susannah follows her triumphant first Salome at the 2014 Ravinia Festival (“I can’t wait to put her ‘on her feet’ in my first staged production in January in San Antonio”). She notes that “Strauss has innately liquid, soaring passages that counter his long narrative phrases; Floyd also creates arcing moments of great power and beauty to counter his own colloquial, recitative-like passages. Susannah's two arias are among my favorites in the soprano repertory. Carlisle knows how to pull on the harmonic heartstrings!”

No doubt the heroines she’s sung at SFO were still a dream for Racette when her career was launched with the Merola Program, Western Opera Theater, and an Adler Fellowship. She recalls, “I was what you might call ‘GOA’ – Green on Arrival!” Fresh out of the University of North Texas, she was overwhelmed by new tasks, “from learning to juggle six cover assignments in one season to choosing an appropriate concert gown.” It was also during her Merola/WOT tenure she debuted her now-celebrated portrayal of Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San.

As an Adler Fellow she covered Pilar Lorengar as Alice in Falstaff (“magnificent” is her word for the late Spanish soprano) and sang that role in student performances. She relished week-long master classes with great artists -- Crespin, Söderström, Hotter, Tozzi: “For the record, I would personally love to bring back that tradition of working with young singers for more than 30 minutes in a master class.”

What Racette describes as her “crystalline moment” happened during Boito’s Mefistofele: “Sarah (Sally) Billinghurst approached me out in the house during the intermission of the final dress rehearsal. The next thing I knew I was being pushed onstage to sing Act Two as Margherita for an indisposed Gabriela Beňačková. I will never forget the rush of that experience! After the performance, I was offered artistic management on the spot -- suffice to say it was a good night!”

In this 25th-anniversary year, Racette feels a veritable floodgate of memories opening up, especially regarding two personalities – each, alas, no longer with us. “I’ve never enjoyed my interaction as Madama Butterfly more than with our adored Zheng Cao. What a spirit -- we both howled with laughter and cried like babies during basically every performance!” And essential to her life as an artist was “my beloved Elena Servi.” The revered diction coach arranged for Racette to study Italian in Perugia -- “not Rome, not Florence, or anywhere else where the people might speak English to me! That summer stint, combined with her meticulous teaching, shaped me and continues to inform every phrase of Italian that I ever speak or sing.”

The city of San Francisco offers endless joys to Racette. She and her wife, mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton, have a ritual of taking their 16-year-old toy poodle, Sappho, to Ocean Beach. And, of course, the years have brought Racette many friends here: “Some of them I’ve known for the entire 25 years, and others have come into my life over the past few years. The only downfall is that I’m always here to work and find myself challenged with not enough time amidst rehearsals and performances to see everyone as much as I’d like!”

And then there is the San Francisco audience, for whom Racette feels immense affection: “There is both loyalty and passion, and I’m quick to remind that we do feel the energy of the audience when we’re on the stage. It really is palpable-- you can just tell when the crowd is 'with you.' I’m lucky enough to sing around the world, but when I come back to San Francisco, I know that I’m home.”
 
Roger Pines, dramaturg of Lyric Opera of Chicago, writes frequently for opera publications and recording companies internationally.


Patricia Racette as Freia in 1990's Das Rheingold


As Micaela in 1991's Carmen


As Mimi in 1996's La Boheme


As Antonia in 1997's Les Contes d'Hoffmann


As Mathilde in 1997's Guillaume Tell


In the title role of Luisa Miller in 2000


In the title role of 2001's La Traviata


In the title role of 2001's Jenufa


As Desdemona in 2002's Otello

'
As Liu in 2002's Turandot


In the title role of 2007's Madama Butterfly, opposite Zheng Cao (Suzuki)


As Giorgetta in 2010's Il Tabarro


In the title role of 2010's Suor Angelica


As Lauretta in 2010's Gianni Schicchi


In the title role of 2012's Tosca


In 2013, Racette created the title role of Tobias Picker's Dolores Claiborne


As Marguerite in 2013's Mefistofele


As Helena in 2013's Mefistofele


As Julie LaVerne in 2014's Show Boat


In the title role of 2014's Madama Butterfly
 


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"A brilliant production!"

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"A small marvel of ferocity and compassion."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"In a beautifully mounted production that sets off another great performance by the beloved soprano Racette, Susannah offers an ardent, anguished, and moving experience."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"As always, Patricia Racette sang with focused power and lyrical beauty."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Debuting conductor Karen Kamensek led a sinewy account, drawing richly colored playing from the Opera Orchestra."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"As Blitch, bass Raymond Aceto gave his finest San Francisco performance yet, a heady blend of vocal prowess and anguished moralism."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Brandon Jovanovich brought his exquisite, clarion tenor and theatrical appeal to the role of Sam, in a performance that conveyed both the fecklessness and inner strength of the character."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
Tenor James Kryshak makes "a vivid, sweet-toned Company debut as Little Bat."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
Patricia Racette "sings the title role with the same vocal allure and dramatic fervor she brings to her performances in the core Italian repertoire."

San Jose Mercury News
 
"Patrica Racette was the shining center of it all." 

–San Francisco Classical Voice
 
Brandon Jovanovich "sang the role of Sam with rich tone and boundless vitality." 

San Jose Mercury News
 
"On a gorgeously stark set (by Erhard Rom), wonderfully limned by Gary Marder’s lighting and ravishing projections, the stars gleam, in Susannah eyes, as diamonds stitched into a velvet blanket." 

–San Francisco Classical Voice
 
"Superb musical direction by conductor Karen Kamensek." 


  –San Jose Mercury News

PERFORMANCES

  • Sat 09/6/14 7:30pm

  • Tue 09/9/14 7:30pm *

  • Fri 09/12/14 7:30pm *

  • Tue 09/16/14 7:30pm

  • Sun 09/21/14 2:00pm *

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*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret-Taube Media Suite.

Sponsors

This production is made possible, in part, by Leslie and George Hume and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Ms. Racette’s appearance is made possible by a gift to the Great Singers Fund by Joan and David Traitel.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.