In celebration of the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah”, I am reposting an essay on the opera that was originally written as part of a review for an Opera Pacific performance.
(For my review of the San Francisco Opera performance, see: Review: Racette, Aceto, Jovanovich in Brilliant New Production of “Susannah” – San Francisco Opera, September 6, 2014.)
In the essay below, I have removed all references to the Opera Pacific production and have added photographs from the San Francisco Opera production. The remaining essay is unchanged from its May 16, 2008 posting.
“Susannah” is often called a folk opera, particularly since its first two scenes respectively contain a lively square dance and Sam’s ditty from when he and his sister were children. Additionally, much of Susannah’s reflective music is written in modal scales, that we often associate with Appalachian ballads.
But I think this designation of the opera is not a useful one, since most of the opera is not folk music at all. Floyd’s musical influences are supposedly eclectic.
Floyd’s frequent use of low dissonant chords might cause one to think of a Benjamin Britten sonic sea image. Here and there a phrase might remind one of Aaron Copland. Another phrase might sound like George Gershwin (to me, the music accompanying Sam going after Blitch with his shotgun could have been an outtake from the “American in Paris” film score.)
One of the highlights of the score, whose roots are in Protestant hymnals rather than folk music, is the second act Revival Meeting, that the Reverend Blitch has organized, with the strong support of the church elders . . .
But to me most of the music of “Susannah” fits well in the mainstream of core post-Romantic operatic repertory. In fact, the opera composer represented in the standard repertory of whom Floyd’s opera most reminds me is Janacek – not that there is any direct musicological link between the two – because both use similar palettes of sonorities.
Any person unfamiliar with “Susannah” who enjoys the music of Janacek’s operas (the number of Janacek fans appears to increase every year), should become acquainted with the Floyd work.
There is another link I see between Floyd’s “Susannah” and Janacek’s “Jenufa” and “Katya Kabanova”. All three take place in small, insular villages, which form communities that have an impact on the lives of its individual residents that persons in large urban communities usually do not expect from their neighbors. New Hope Valley, Tennessee is as oppressive a place for a free spirit like Susannah as Jenufa’s Moravian village or Katya’s rural Russia.
[Below: Susannah (Patricia Racette, front center) is surprised to discover that she has been ostracized by her community; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Even so, there is one other community, probably much larger than these other three, from which an analogy can be drawn. That is Wartburg, the town that Tannhauser, the hero of Wagner’s opera, left.
The comparison with Wartburg, I believe, provides a clearer example of what the opera is about than such traditional explanations as Floyd’s libretto.
Still in currency is the idea that the libretto was meant to be a condemnation of the tactics of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin in the early 50s that has come to be known as the McCarthy Era. (Floyd has himself denied that the effects of “McCarthyism” on individuals was his inspiration for the opera.)
This website has spent quite a bit of time discussing the Wartburg over the past 16 months, as part of an analysis of three different interpretations of Wagner’s “Tannhauser” produced by, sequentially, the Los Angeles Opera, San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera.
The Wartburg was an intensely religious community of the medieval period. Religious and social conformity were expected of all residents in their community and all others surrounding them.
[Below: a community dance is held in New Hope Valley; edited image, based ona Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
In the years of the splintering of the “universal church” after Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin launched their reform movements (independent of one another), it was typical for German and Swiss towns to establish a religious orthodoxy for the persons residing in their community.
The town might be Lutheran, Anabaptist, Calvinist or Roman Catholic, but more often than not it was intolerant of any of the other religions. Persons who failed to follow the letter of whichever church doctrine their community espoused were shunned (and sometimes harmed or killed) in the here and now and, it was believed, damned in eternity.
These austere sentiments carried over into the new world to which religious refugees were fleeing from areas where they were no longer welcome, joining other religious refugees from England, Scotland and elsewhere.
Many of the mountains, hills and valleys in the original American colonies became places where religious communities could be built, safe from the world of disasters from which their original inhabitants fled.
Floyd’s father was a Methodist minister, and Floyd was strongly influenced by the small evangelistic communities that lay on the circuit that such a minister traveled.
I have come to believe that New Hope Valley should be regarded as a principal character in the opera (with the elders and the church women as the community’s manifestation), which has to deal with the challenges to its rules – its very essence – in the ways that have protected the community from the chaos of the outside for centuries.
(Note that when reconstructing the focus of the opera to the community’s rules, it changes what many thought the opera was about – McCarthyism, Blitch’s hypocrisy, even the loose ties to the Biblical (or Apocryphal) story of Susannah and the Elders.)
Those elders and churchwomen who needed to guard the New Hope Valley community were clearly uneasy about Sam Polk’s bouts of drunkenness and Susannah’s flirtatiousness. Two incidents caused them to move from being on guard to taking action.
[Below: Little Bat McLean (James Kryshak, left) confesses to Susannah (Patricia Racette, right) that he lied and bragged to his church-going parents that he had carnal knowledge of her; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
First (in a plot device that permitted at least tangential reference to the scriptural story that gave the opera its name and was supposedly its raison d’etre), 1) Susannah was seen bathing naked in the baptism stream and 2) Little Bat, upon some hard questioning on the part of his parents, concocted a story that Susannah had seduced him.
I think that Floyd’s revision of the scriptual story is masterful. Originally, the Biblical (or Apocryphal) Susanna bathed in a fountain. The elders came upon her naked and attempted to seduce her, but when she refused, accused her of public wantoness.
In Floyd’s libretto, she is bathing in a creek on the Polks’ property (as she has done for some time), and the elders see her because they are trying to locate the part of the creek that they have used in the past for baptisms, so it can be available to the new preacher.
The second charge against Susannah is an extremely serious one in a village where the sexual conduct of its members is regarded to be a community affair.
Although there is a zero tolerance for such transgressions, there is a remedy – a public confession and submission of one’s self and future conduct to the community. (Susannah’s public confession would be the New Hope Valley equivalent of Tannhauser’s pilgrimage to Rome to seek the Pope’s forgiveness.)
There is an important difference between Susannah and Tannhauser. Whereas the minnesinger acknowledged his transgression of the Wartburg rules and agreed to the pathway to his absolution, Susannah had not done anything wrong and refused to accept the community’s accusation that she had.
[Below: the Reverend Olin Blitch (Raymond Aceto, in white sleeves, center right) leads a religious revival at the New Hope Valley church; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]
In the 21st century, much of the world has a different view of what kinds of sexual conduct are a community affair and what is not than predominated in New Hope Valley at the square dance that Monday night in mid-July.
But we have become much more absolutist when it comes to sexual misconduct in a religious context. When we discover that “God-fearing” politicians and evangelists have succumbed to the ways of the flesh, we fully grasp the hypocrisy of the situations.
We are especially intolerant, if we believe that a hypocrite is using the argument that he (or she) can effect one’s salvation in the afterlife in exchange for present day sexual favors.
So Blitch’s actions make him seem especially villainous. Sex with a woman whom he believed was “loose” (or what an operative of a former American president referred to as “trailer trash”) should be his reward for his fight against sinners. (“My reward it be’s in heaven/An there’s little reward here below/But ever now and then I near go mad/I need a woman so . . . Cause it’s a lonesome work I do.”)
Even so, in this age of absolutist condemnation of sexual hypocrisy, there can be greater and lesser villains. Conductor [John] DeMain, I think correctly, points out, that regardless of Blitch’s sexual misconduct, he was genuinely shocked to discover that Susannah had been a virgin before he forced himself upon her, and attempted unsuccessfully to persuade the community elders that she had been unjustly accused.
Unlike such true operatic villains as Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca” or Iago in Verdi’s “Otello”, Blitch fully comprehended the depth of his sin, and died in agony at what he had done. And the person who actually was responsible for the series of calamities that befell the town – Little Bat – like a child playing with matches that led to a conflagration – was too much of an innocent to even be considered a bad person.
When “Susannah” played at the Met, there were New York critics that just could not get the opera. One suggested that it was too simplistic – there just was not enough there to present it at an opera house like the Met. My own view is that the opera and its libretto are substantive.
Floyd links us to a time and place that was in his imagination, but was based on his experiences as a youth in communities that would have understood the ways of New Hope Valley. Floyd’s decision not to tamper with the work, when he received an opportunity to revise it for a major recording, was the correct one.
For more information on “Susannah” and other operas, please visit my new Facebook “Opera Warhorses” site.