Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Stage

'Susannah' is a distinctly American opera

By Jim Harper

Times Correspondent

Most people think of opera as a European art form, but it isn't always. And in the span of three weeks, Tampa Bay stage-lovers will have had a chance to see the two American operas that have been performed more than any other.

The first was familiar — Porgy and Bess — whose updated Broadway version had eight performances at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in mid January.

The second, maybe less so. It's Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, a tale of hypocrisy and social judgment set in rural east Tennessee, to be performed by the St. Petersburg Opera Company this weekend at the Palladium Theater.

One reason for both operas' popularity may be how they draw on distinctly American kinds of music — jazz and blues for Porgy; Appalachian folk tunes and the evangelical hymns that tamed the American countryside for Susannah.

Aaron Copland used similar folk sources to try to write the quintessential American opera, but he did not succeed. Instead, Floyd's compact 100-minute work, which was written and premiered in Tallahassee, of all places, in 1955, has emerged as second only to Porgy in frequency of production.

Floyd, who taught piano and composition at Florida State University for 30 years, will be present for Friday's opening night.

Mark Sforzini, St. Petersburg Opera's artistic director, says he was drawn to Susannah for several reasons, not least his own connection to FSU, where he studied and first became aware of Floyd's career. (The two's tenure in Tallahassee did not overlap; Floyd moved to the University of Houston in 1976, facilitating a long association with the Houston Grand Opera. At age 87, Floyd is again living — and composing — in Tallahassee.)

Sforzini also likes the thematic relevance of Susannah. The title character is an 18-year-old woman, orphaned and raised by an older brother. Her beauty attracts both the attention of the town's menfolk and the jealousy of their wives. When Susannah is discovered innocently swimming nude in a creek near her house, gossip and condemnation ensue. Eventually, Susannah is raped by her chief tormentor, a visiting evangelist who has publicly called on her to repent.

Sforzini thinks of fallen preachers such as Jim Bakker and Ted Haggard: "These figures who are supposed to be so highly regarded, and they teach all these things to their congregations but they turn around and do just the opposite."

But Susannah reaches beyond the failings of an individual. With a supporting cast and chorus of more than 50, including a dozen children, the opera shows how gossip and community pressure can feed a hateful mob mentality not unlike the cases of teenaged cyber-bullying we read about today.

Musically, Susannah has a lyrical quality not unlike Puccini's, along with the open tonal sonorities that listeners might association with Copland or Samuel Barber. Floyd is generally regarded as a musical conservative, in contrast to the avant-garde tendencies of his generation and of operatic successors such as John Adams and Phillip Glass.

"But," says Sforzini, "the music is really woven together with great craft."

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