Make us your home page
Instagram

'Susannah' is a distinctly American opera

Susan Hellman plays Susannah, a beautiful 18-year-old, orphaned and raised by a brother.

St. Petersburg Opera

Susan Hellman plays Susannah, a beautiful 18-year-old, orphaned and raised by a brother.

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."

If you go

Susannah

St. Petersburg Opera performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Tuesday, 2 p.m. Sunday at the Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. $21.50-$64.50. (727) 823-2040. stpeteopera.org.

'Susannah' is a distinctly American opera 01/28/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 3:29pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for Aug. 23

    Events

    The Art of the Brick: An elaborate display of more than 100 pieces of Lego artwork including the life sized sculpture of a man ripping open his chest, a 20-foot-long T. rex skeleton, a giant skull and replicas of famous works including Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night and Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona …

    Nathan Sawaya with a sculpture from his The Art of the Brick exhibition coming to Tampa June 23- Sept. 4. It will be open for free Wednesdays through Sundays,  from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 802 E Whiting Street, Tampa. No tickets are required.[Courtesy  of the Art of the Brick]
  2. I give you a fish, you give me back my man

    Blogs

    The B-52s are a band with such a distinct visual look that you could tell it was them with just a glimpse of a picture. But was it always beehives and bright clothes for the hipsters from Athens? You can find the different looks of the B-52s in their video for the irresistible Give Me Back My Man.

  3. Joss Whedon's ex-wife accuses him of cheating, being 'hypocrite preaching feminist ideals'

    Celebrities

    Joss Whedon made his name directing cult television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and big-budget action movies, which often featured women in empowering roles. Many applauded him for being a champion of women, a feminist in an industry accused of misogyny and sexism.

    Joss Whedon at the screening of "Much Ado About Nothing" in 2014. Whedon's ex-wife Kai Cole alleged in an essay published by The Wrap on Sunday that Whedon had multiple affairs during their 16-year marriage. (Associated Press)
  4. For James Blunt, life is still 'Beautiful,' especially on tour with Ed Sheeran

    Music & Concerts

    Here's how much You're Beautiful still weighs on James Blunt: He specifically references his biggest hit twice on his new album, The Afterlove.

    ISCHGL, AUSTRIA - NOVEMBER 29:  James Blunt performs live on stage during the ‘Top Of The Mountain Concert’ on November 29, 2014 in Ischgl, Austria.  (Photo by Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images)
  5. Wine of the week: Pull 2012 Merlot Paso Robles

    Bars & Spirits

    It's still too hot out to even think about big heavy red wines, but you can take a break from chilled whites with a lighter red varietal. One fine choice would be Pull 2012 Merlot from Broken Earth Winery, in Paso Robles, Calif.