On the Record
with the Houston Grand Opera (and others)
As longtime Houstonian Carlisle Floyd marks his 80th birthday on June 11, music lovers can look back upon a lifetime of musical creativity, highlighted by 10 operas, as well as other instrumental and vocal compositions.
Floyd, whose reputation as a composer has steadily grown to international stature over the past decade, taught for 20 years as M.D. Anderson Professor of Music at the University of Houston. He also founded and led (alongside Houston Grand Opera director David Gockley) the innovative Houston Opera Studio, a program that bridges the gap between the academic world of music students and the professional world of grand opera.
The studio has achieved “some very important work,” said Carl Cunningham, who was for many years the performing-arts critic at the Houston Post. After its creation, he told H Texas, “there was a great clamor to study in Houston, and because of it, [UH] still has a very fine vocal program, and Houston has a stable full of talented young singers.”
Cunningham praised Floyd not only as a composer, but as “a fine librettist” (he has written the librettos for all his operas) and as “a significant teacher of composition,” as well.
“Carlisle stuck to his stylistic roots while other composers went off to more difficult, abstruse vogues, and have since come back. He was right to stick to what he believed in,” Cunningham affirmed, adding that Floyd, unlike many of his colleagues, “is a genuinely operatic composer. He has a feeling for the stage, for vocal music, for theatrical pacing, for designing traditional arias and choruses, for dramatic rather than abstract music.”
The South Carolina-born composer has now retired to the Florida coast, but in recent weeks he returned to the Houston area for an all-Floyd concert given by the Kingwood Chorale and Chamber Orchestra. The festivities were arranged as an early birthday celebration by Dr. Todd Miller, a Kingwood College professor and protegew of Floyd’s. The concert featured arias, choruses and operatic scenes excerpted from the span of several decades of music. “I’ve cherished my time in Houston,” Floyd told H Texas in a phone interview. “I always felt very welcome, and am infinitely grateful to Houston Grand Opera, the University of Houston and the city itself.”
Over the course of his career, Floyd’s achievements have been acknowledged by honors ranging from a Guggenheim Fellowship (in the 1950s) to the National Medal of Arts (in 2004). In awarding the last of these, President George W. Bush cited the composer “for giving American opera its national voice in a series of contemporary classics rooted in American themes.”
Unfortunately, the average nusic lover can’t expect to appreciate the sum of Floyd’s accomplishments first-hand. These days, productions of his operas are not uncommon throughout the United States (and are increasing in Europe), but a significant portion of his music has yet to be commercially recorded, including half of the music dramas. Until the next staging comes along to be experienced live, here are the works of Carlisle Floyd currently on CD, from the most recent to the earliest.
“COLD SASSY TREE,” musical drama in three acts. Libretto by the composer, based on the novel by Olive Ann Burns. Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Patrick Summers; with featured singers Patricia Racette and Dean Peterson. Albany Records, 2005 release.
Floyd’s last major work, which premiered in April of 2000 in Houston, was hailed as “a minor masterpiece” by critic Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle, who praised its “passages of radiant, lyrical beauty.”
This comic opera relates the story of a May-December romance in small-town Georgia around 1900. Highlights include the aria “Rented rooms, that’s all I’ve ever known,” in which the young heroine describes her impoverished and nomadic childhood.
“OF MICE AND MEN,” opera in three acts. Libretto by the composer, based on the novella by John Steinbeck. Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Patrick Summers; with featured singers Gordon Hawkins and Anthony Dean Griffey. Albany Records, 2003 release.
“This may be the great American opera,” wrote David Patrick Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer upon the release of this recording.
Numerous other critics from across the nation have suggested that this dark tale of two migrant laborers during the Great Depression marks the culmination of Floyd’s career. “I think it is a great opera,” Carl Cunningham told us. “The style has a wonderful maturity, and the storyline moves so well. It is a seamless opera that holds up very well on repeated hearings.” “Of Mice and Men” first debuted in Seattle in 1970 and had been performed by HGO numerous times before this recording was made. Individual elements are subjugated to the narrative as a whole, but one highlight is the soaring, hopeful duet of George and Lennie: “One day soon, we’ll save up enough, an’ we’ll buy a small house … and we’ll live off the fat of the land.”
“MARKHEIM,” opera in one act. Libretto by the composer, based on the short story by Robert Louis Stevenson. New Orleans Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Knud Andersson; with featured singers Norman Treigle and Alan Crofoot. VAI (Video Artists International) Audio, 1995 release. “THE SOJOURNER AND MOLLIE SINCLAIR,” comic opera in one act. Original libretto by the composer. Orchestra and Chorus of the East Carolina College School of Music, conducted by Julius Rudel; with featured singers Patricia Neway and Norman Treigle. VAI (Video Artists International) Audio, 1999 release.
These two one-act operas – one tragic, one comic – both feature the artistry of baritone Norman Treigle, who was one of several musicians (including soprano Phyllis Curtin, conductor Julius Rudel, and HGO director David Gockley) who championed Floyd through decades of critical neglect.
The underrated “Markheim” stars Treigle in the title role, in a story of murder and redemption at Christmas time. It premiered in New Orleans in 1966, while the slight but amusing “Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair” was first performed in Raleigh, N.C., in 1963. Upon the belated release of this CD some 40 years after its premiere, Opera News praised Treigle’s “hauntingly lovely” aria “The Isle of Skye,” while the Boston Globe cited Patricia Neway as Mollie in a scene beginning, “Dougald, I would speak with thee.” “SUSANNAH,” musical drama in two acts. Libretto by the composer, based upon the apocryphal Biblical story of Susanna and the Elders. Choeur et Orchestre de L’Opera de Lyon, conducted by Kent Nagano; with featured singers Cheryl Studer and Samuel Ramey. Virgin Classics, 1994 release.
Release of this recording by an esteemed French opera company, coming some 40 years after the opera’s debut at Florida State University in Tallahassee (in February 1955) forced many American classical-music critics – particularly those in New York – to grudgingly re-evaluate Carlisle Floyd as a composer after years of condescension.
(For decades, numerous critics from what David Gockley has termed “the Northeastern establishment” downplayed Floyd’s works, damning them with faint praise, such as “a nice little opera,” “workmanlike,” “ingratiating,” “skillful,” “traditional,” and – perhaps worst of all – “tuneful.”
“ÒMr. Floyd has a nice way with hoedowns,” smirked one, while another compared the composer to a mechanic, who “knows what it takes to get the engine running … the tires have been kicked, the oil has been changed.” Still another dismissed one of Floyd’s works whole-cloth as “three hours of drawling characters” in “the corn-pone South.”
This stunning performance by a cast of international caliber and the Lyon Opera, however, won a 1995 Grammy for best opera recording, and compelled a widespread re-evaluation of Floyd’s complex, love-hate relationship with the American South. Among its highlights are two arias that are modern standards of the concert hall, “Ain’t It a Pretty Night?” and the folk-like ballad “The Trees on the Mountains.” Renowned sopranos Renee Fleming and Dawn Upshaw have also showcased individual arias by Floyd in solo albums (I Want Magic! and The World So Wide, respectively). Over the years, some of Floyd’s non-operatic works (both instrumental and vocal) have been recorded as well; but none of these is presently available.
This regrettably leaves five of Floyd’s operas unavailable for enjoyment by most music lovers – including three major works premiered by the Houston Grand Opera during the composer’s two decades at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music: “Bilby’s Doll” (1976), “Willie Stark” (1981), and the revised version of his post-Civil War epic “The Passion of Jonathan Wade” (1991).
In talking with H Texas, however, Floyd spoke of this situation with equanimity, since, he said, he has always regarded the fusion of music with the staged theatrical performance as primary. “To miss the visual aspect [of opera],” he suggested, “is to miss the whole, which is greater than the sum of the parts.” (It is an argument, however, that might not exactly endear him to the companies that distribute his recordings.)
At least one of his Houston-era works, however, might meet the composer’s theatrical criteria. After its HGO premiere, “Willie Stark,” based upon Robert Penn Warren’s classic novel of Southern politics, “All the King’s Men,” was subsequently videotaped for the PBS “Great Performances” series. Is it not conceivable that – just as the critical reputation of “Susannah” was revitalized via CD decades after its debut – someday “Willie Stark” may be resurrected by its release on the DVD player? After all, upon reviewing the original public-television broadcast in 1982, Andrew Porter of The New Yorker called Floyd’s opera “A bold and adventurous work … On television, “Willie Stark” was a success.” At that time, Porter also offered a snapshot of Carlisle Floyd as a distinctly American composer that holds true today:
“With a commitment that rivals Smetana’s in Bohemia or Britten’s in Britain, he has striven to create a national repertory. He has studied the best international models and learned the international language of successful opera in order to speak it in his own accents, and to enrich it with the musical and vernacular idioms of his own country.”