Carlisle Floyd (born 1926) brought abilities as librettist and dramatist to the composition of opera. Writing mostly in the verismo tradition, Floyd achieved considerable success with his third opera, Susannah, although he continued to refine and develop his techniques in later works.
Carlisle Floyd was born in Latta, South Carolina, on June 11, 1926. He received his first piano lessons from his mother at the age of ten, but divided his attentions among literature, graphic arts, sports, and music throughout his high school years. At Spartanburg College, where he began studying in 1943 on a scholarship, Floyd's writing abilities earned him first prize in a contest for one-act plays. When in 1945 his piano teacher, Ernst Bacon, accepted a post at Syracuse University, Floyd followed him there in order to continue studying with him.
Floyd received his bachelor of music degree from Syracuse in 1946 and in the following year began teaching piano at Florida State University. In 1948 he organized a course—the first of its kind anywhere—dealing with the problems of relating music and text in the composition of opera. As professor of music he taught composition at Florida State University until 1976. In that year he accepted a post at the University of Houston where, in addition to the duties of professor, he became co-director of the Houston Opera Studio. He also served as chairman of the Opera Musical Theater of the National Endowment for the Arts.
19th Century Roots
Floyd was best known for his operas, most of which are in the verismo tradition. This movement has its roots in the realism of the 19th-century dramatists such as Zola, Flaubert, Ibsen, and Hauptmann, who replaced an idealistic and often fantastic subject matter with one grounded in believable events, often with a contemporary, moral message. Earlier operatic composers who allied themselves with this movement were Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and (to some extent) Puccini, and later Menotti and Moore.
Floyd's first major success and, indeed, perhaps his best-known work was his third opera, Susannah, (written 1953-1954) and first produced at Florida State University on February 24, 1955. It combined the features of verismo with those of folk opera, and hence contained music reminiscent of hymns, folk songs, and square dances, though not actually using previously existing music. Floyd wrote his own libretto, as he did for all of his 11 operas. Here he borrowed the apocryphal story of Susannah and the Elders, but set it in the mountains of present-day Tennessee. The consequences of a conflict between narrow religious dogma and straightforward folk honesty were depicted through the seduction of the heroine by Reverend Blitch and the avenging of Susannah's dishonor by her brother, who kills Blitch. Both the libretto and the music are direct, uncomplicated, and emotional. The text was treated in a variety of ways. Many of the arias utilize modal scales characteristic of folk music. In addition to recitative, which is always sensitive to the natural inflections of speech, Floyd employed spoken sections and, briefly, Sprechstimme (halfway between speech and song). Conventional harmonic language serves the purposes of folk description.
In 1958 Floyd completed another major opera, Wuthering Heights, on a commission from the Santa Fe Opera. Floyd's libretto departed from his usual American setting in its basis on the Emily Brontë novel. He did, however, seek to have the characters speak in a manner that was essentially timeless in character rather than identifiably contemporary or Victorian. He also chose to use only the first half of the book, as he felt that both the shifting emphasis to Heathcliff and the introduction of a second generation in the second half would necessitate proportions unacceptable to opera.
Greater Acclaim to Come
Several of Floyd's later operas received higher critical acclaim than either Susannahor Wuthering Heights, chiefly for the greater sophistication of their melodies, but none became more popular. Among his later operas were: The Passion of Jonathan Wade (1962), commissioned by the New York City Opera on a grant from the Ford Foundation; The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair (1963), a one-act opera commissioned by the Carolina Charter Tercentenary Commission and intended for television; Markheim (1966); Of Mice and Men (1969); Bilby's Doll (1976), commissioned by the Houston Opera with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and containing instances of atonal writing unusual for Floyd; and Willie Stark (1980), commissioned jointly by the Houston Opera and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. All revealed Floyd's gifts as a writer of lyrical melodies and his flair for the theater. Compositions outside the realm of opera include: Pilgrimage (1956), a cantata for voice and orchestra; a piano sonata (1957); Introduction, Aria, and Dance (1967) for orchestra; Flower and the Hawk (1972), a monodrama for soprano and orchestra; and In Celebration (1978), an overture for orchestra.
Not Just Opera
The non-operatic works of Floyd gained increasing attention in later years. In 1993, his orchestral song cycle Citizen of Paradise, based on the poems and letters of Emily Dickenson, premiered. A Time to Dance was commissioned by the American Choral Directors Association and in March 1994 performed by the Westminster Choir and the San Antonio Symphony at the association's biennial convention.
Awards and honors received by Floyd are numerous. Among the more notable are a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1956 and the National Opera Institute's Award for Service to American Opera, the highest honor the institute bestows, which he received in 1983. Additionally, Floyd in 1976 became the first chairman of the Opera/Musical Theater Panel when the program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts. He also was selected to be the keynote speaker at Opera America's annual conference in 1997.
In addition, Floyd continued teaching at the university level, sharing his gifts with others who someday might rival or surpass his stature in the operatic world. He was associated with the University of Houston School of Music for 20 years. When he retired from teaching in 1996, he left behind the school's distinguished M.D. Anderson Chair and the legacy of having helped build a highly respected music program. Upon his departure from academia, Floyd referred to his retirement as his "third act" and expressed the intention to pursue the creation of more operatic works.
Further Reading on Carlisle Floyd
David Ewen's American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary (1982) contains a complete but not always reliable biography. Floyd discussed his opera Wuthering Heights in a lengthy article in the New York Times (July 13, 1958). Howard Taubman reviewed the same opera in the New York Times (April 10, 1959), and Susannah, also in the New York Times (September 28, 1956). More recently in the same newspaper (October 15, 1983) Donal Henahan reviewed Of Mice and Men.