Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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San Francisco Opera Embraces “Susannah”: An American Operatic Masterpiece Returns to the War Memorial – September, 2014

July 14th, 2014

For the first time in the history of the San Francisco Opera, Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah” is being presented as part of the Opera’s “main season”.


Three of the four main characters will be performed by San Francisco Opera favorites.

Patricia Racette will be Susannah and Raymond Aceto will be the Reverend Olin Blitch. In luxury casting, Brandon Jovanovich will assume the important role of Sam Polk, that he first sang in 2002 in a local opera company production in Walnut Creek, California.

[Below: Patricia Racette; edited image from a publicity photograph from www.patriciaracette.com.]


Jovanovich’s entry into the realm of Wagnerian Opera occurred at the San Francisco Opera as Froh in “Das Rheingold”, Siegmund in “Die Walkure” and the title role of “Lohengrin.”

Jovanovich will continue his fruitful relationship with the San Francisco Opera in future seasons as Walther von Stolzing in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” and Sergei in Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk”.

Susannah the Conqueror

The opera, a few months less than 60 years old, is arguably – excepting only Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” – the most frequently-performed opera in history by an American-born composer.

(It is probable that, because North American companies large and small observe traditions in how “Porgy” is cast, that a greater numbeer of opera singers have sung in productions of “Susannah” than of “Porgy”.)

Both “Porgy” and “Susannah” have South Carolina connections. “Porgy’s” action is located in that state. “Susannah’s” composer was born there.

Susannah’s Previous Journey to the War Memorial

Fifty years ago, the San Francisco Opera, as part of SPOT, the Spring Opera Theater, produced the opera at the War Memorial Opera House.

[Below: the design for the church scene for San Francisco Opera’s new 2014 production of  Floyd’s “Susannah”; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The production’s cast was of historic importance. The 32 year old soprano Lee Venora sang the title role (Susannah Poilk) in a production staged by the 37 year old composer Carlisle Floyd himself, in a cast that included the 37 year old bass baritone Norman Treigle as Olin Blitch and the 37 year old dramatic tenor Richard Cassilly as Sam Polk.

Both Treigle and Cassilly were considered in the first rank of interpreters of their parts in the opera’s early decades.

Folk Opera or Core Operatic Repertory?

“Susannah” incorporates brief moments of “local color” folk music to evoke the isolated Appalachian community in Eastern Tennessee – the bright fiddle strings that accompany the community dance, the bluegrass-inspired “Jaybird” lullaby sung by Sam Polk and his sister Susannah.

Yet this is a through-composed opera, whose several folksong-inspired melodies are thoroughly integrated into a powerful score, sizable enough to tax the symphonic and choral resources of all but the largest American opera companies.

The San Francisco Opera audience now easily absorbs the Czech language (and folksongs) of the work of Janacek, and the speech patterns of Britten’s seafaring men.

Thus, there should be no problem of the audience adjusting to the lengthened diphthongs and twangy rhythms of the Appalachian dialect, the language common to all the community’s saints and sinners, so authentically translated from speech to singing by Floyd.

Hypocrisy, False Witness and Rustic Chivalry

The opera is no caricature of rural folks in the mountainous South. It is something much more than an exposition of hypocrisy. Both the libretto and music were composed by Floyd, himself the son of a preacher man.

[Below: the design for the scene at the “baptism crick” for the San Francisco Opera’s new 2014 production of Floyd’s “Susannah”; resized image, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


“Susannah” is an indictment of a community that can bully and ostracize a brother and sister because they do not conform to a rigid code arbitrarily established by the community’s elders.

Bullying and alienation of perceived “misfits” are themes that permeate this opera, which stands in this regard aside many of the contemporaneous operas of Benjamin Britten.

“Susannah” is also a psychologically daunting drama of a “Man of God’s” failed struggle with the impulses he regards as the sins of his flesh.

The Reverend Olin Blitch’s sexual conquest of Susannah is an unwanted intrusion into a woman’s life, already troubled by a false accusation to the community church elders by Little Bat, a teenage boy who himself struggles with sexual urges.

In this Biblical “eye for an eye” world, Blitch’s revenge death by Susannah’s brother appears as an act of rustic chivalry which Blitch accepts as inevitable and as justified as does Turridu and Alfio in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”.

The opera’s theme of false witness, personified by the mentally troubled adolescent boy Little Bat who told his suspicious parents that Susannah seduced him, came to be regarded as a metaphor for the “Red Scare” of the 1950s, so vividly in the mind of composer/stage director Floyd, who felt personally victimized by the McCarthy period.

[Below: Composer Carlisle Floyd; resized image of a publicity photogrpah.]


It is doubtful that the metaphor was lost on the audience of 1964, which one can be certain contained many San Francisco Bay Area residents with recent memories of particpation in in the San Francisco protests against the House Unamerican Activities Committee.

The opera, which is now in the performance histories of virtually every major American opera company, will receive a new production that will be unveiled on September 6th, the second night of the San Francisco Opera’s 2014-15 season.


For my review of the Opera Pacific production, see: Opera Pacific’s Brilliant “Susannah” – May 14, 2008.

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Tags: Quests and Anticipations