When CCM staged Carlisle Floyd’s opera Of Mice and Men last May, the composer was on hand for opening night. He was so impressed that when opera department head Robin Guarino asked him to return to work with students he immediately accepted.
The dean of American opera composers arrived in Cincinnati Nov. 10 to begin coaching sessions with CCM students, culminating in a performance of excerpts from Floyd’s operas Wednesday in CCM’s Patricia Corbett Theater. His best-known works, Susannah and Of Mice and Men, are now standard repertoire, but CCM’s program will feature selections from works composed over a 50-year span and virtually unknown to American audiences.
“I just figured this kind of programming would cover more territory and give more students a chance to perform,” says Floyd, who is widely sought after as a coach and master teacher.
The music might be unfamiliar, but the stories have special resonance for American audiences. With the exception of Wuthering Heights (1958), Floyd’s operas draw on American source material, spanning American history from the Salem witch trials to small-town politics in Cold Sassy Tree. Floyd is particularly fond of Bilby’s Doll (1975), the story of a young girl coming to terms with her own spirituality in Puritan New England.
“It’s a touching, heartbreaking story and a very different view of witchcraft and the Salem witch trials,” Floyd says.
The Passion of Jonathan Wade (which premiered in 1962) is Floyd’s own creation, a tale of a young Northern officer overseeing Reconstruction in a South Carolina town and how his efforts are crushed by extremists on both sides.
“It’s from our darkest period in American history,” says Floyd, who drew on own experiences growing up in South Carolina.
“Wade is incorruptible and he finds it impossible to operate.”
Wade’s doppelganger is Willy Stark, the title character of Floyd’s 1981 opera based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men, what Floyd calls “the tragic story of a man trying to extricate himself from the corruption he’s allowed to happen.”
The strong dramatic sensibility underpinning all Floyd’s music comes from his self-description as a man of the theater, in good company with Giuseppi Verdi and Giacomo Puccini.
“You have to have a love of the theater to write well for it,” he insists.
That theatrical instinct enabled him to translate sprawling novels like Wuthering Heights, All the King’s Men and Cold Sassy Tree into their dramatic essence. An accomplished writer with a keen ear for the music in language, Floyd is his own librettist.
The characters “have real emotions and honest human characteristics,” says CCM bass-baritone Noel Bouley, part of the Cold Sassy Tree ensemble. “The duet especially is a classic example of Maestro Floyd’s ability to meld the music and the story together in a way that moves something inside you.”
“I love hearing him talk about his people,” CCM's Guarino says. “I mean the people who populate his operas. He’s a master storyteller.”
A longtime advocate for young musicians, Floyd and David Gockley co-founded in 1977 the Houston Opera Studio, one of the most respected training programs for young singers whose alumni include Joyce DiDonato, Denyce Graves and Bruce Ford. Teaching is another of Floyd’s passions, and he is eager to work with CCM students and faculty.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how the students think and how they absorb my ideas,” Floyd says. “George Darden (accompanist for the program and the accompanist and coach at the Metropolitan Opera for 21 years) will work with them before I arrive, so by the time I get there, I hope they’ll be open to new possibilities that come from working with the composer.”
Sopranos especially will relish the chance to work with the composer of “Ain’t It a Pretty Night” from Susannah, an exquisite aria that a singer told Floyd is “the soprano’s national anthem.”
Floyd is hoping to see students dig into their characterizations as well as their music and cites his work with bass-baritone Bouley last spring as an example.
“I had a wonderful experience with him,” he says. “His performance changed so dramatically from when I first saw him in rehearsal. He gave it everything he had. That’s the satisfaction for me.”
AN EVENING WITH CARLISLE FLOYD, with pianist George Darden accompanying, is 7 p.m. Wednesday at CCM’s Patricia Corbett Theater on the University of Cincinnati campus. The event is free. Get show and venue details here.