DENVER — "Music to me is access to the very best in human nature," says American composer Carlisle Floyd. "For people who are even remotely sensitive, it has a way of triggering a whole emotional area of ourselves we may not even know exists."
Mr. Floyd was recently in Denver for the opening of his most popular opera, "Susannah," now in an exhilarating production by Central City Opera Company. He talked about his life in music, his aims as a creative artist, and his absorbing interest in the human heart and mind.
Floyd has written six full-length operas (notably "Wuthering Heights," "Of Mice and Men," "Willie Stark," and "The Passion of Jonathan Wade") and three one-acts. He has recently completed a large choral work called "A Time to Dance."
The son of a Methodist minister, Floyd grew up in the rural South, leaving long enough to obtain his master's degree from Syracuse University (N.Y.). He returned to the South to teach at Florida State University from 1947 to 1976, and thereafter, at the University of Houston.
Origin of 'Susannah'
He was only 28 when he wrote both the music and the libretto for "Susannah." And having been told as a creative-writing student in college to write about what he knew, he placed the Apocryphal story of "Susannah and the Elders" in the rural South, recalling the revival meetings and church services he had seen as a child in South Carolina.
Though the tragic story certainly takes issue with the evils of the human mind, it does not negate or despise genuine religious feeling, and one of the most moving moments occurs during a church meeting, when the congregation sings a beautiful hymn-like anthem.
The story concerns a girl who is falsely accused of immoral behavior when she is seen by elders of the church bathing in a creek. Disgraced in the eyes of her mountain community, she defies her neighbors with a gun, driving them away from her cabin - but not before a terrible tragedy hardens her heart toward them all.
The story reflects a reaction to the excesses of the McCarthy era, but it would be a mistake to equate "Susannah" with, say, Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." Floyd's story is not a political harangue.
"I don't want to be preached to, I don't want to be aware of a thesis in the theater - certainly not in the musical theater," he says. "Ours is the arena of passion and action and some sort of insight into human behavior." He chooses to write about the deep issues of the human spirit. "They are the only things that interest me - because they are the things that are timeless."
Though the sociopolitical implications of "Susannah" are clear, Floyd is engaged in revealing the twist of the human mind that sees evil where none exists. He shows that jealousy is inherently blinding: Those who accuse Susannah of wrong-doing jump to the basest conclusions because they envy her. And the whole piece speaks with authority to the evils of zealotry - revealing the destructive nature of baseless accusations, intolerance, and mob rule.
"Zealotry is one of the most frightening elements in the human mind. It proceeds on the assumption that there's one right way, and it's mine," says Floyd. "It's a specter that never really goes away. And it's pure projection - you project onto others your own guilt or fears."
Since its professional premire at the New York City Opera in 1956, "Susannah" has received nearly 300 productions and more than 800 performances in the United States and Europe.
It is one of the most beloved of American operas and for good reason: The music is beautiful, richly lyrical, and highly accessible, and the feisty story is thought-provoking and tragic in the "grand" tradition. It boasts well-defined characters; its observations on human behavior and weakness are compassionate and profound. Not even the preacher is vilified: He is a good man whose wrongheaded ministrations are (at first) well meant, though he falls victim to gossip and to his own desires.
Unlike the ladies of most grand opera, Susannah herself is resolutely strong, a spirited survivor. The development of strong, complex characters is very important to Floyd, and few opera heroines exhibit anything more than pathetic weakness - Mimi, Butterfly, and Violetta are all victims. But because Susannah's spirit is indomitable, Floyd says he admires and loves her.
"The thing that has made 'Susannah' endure," he says, "is that the theme is universal and deals with something so basic in human nature it transcends language and customs and everything."
But it is the music that taps the wells of feeling. Though he does not borrow actual hymns or folk tunes, much of the music evokes those simple forms. Floyd's "hymns" and "folk" tunes are incredibly complex and musically sophisticated - difficult, even.
Asked why he chooses to write grand opera, he says, "I think that life is pretty serious business, and what I've always been interested in doing more than anything else is absorbing the audience onto the stage so that they participate in the dramatic lives of the characters, care what happens, and confront the issues themselves." Floyd points out that human beings, unless they are terribly twisted, are disposed to positive feelings and good.
"And I don't think music can ever express meanness - you know, smallness of spirit. It's quite capable of revealing man's emotional and spiritual nature at its broadest and most intense in a way that nothing else can do. And then when it is linked to something theatrical - then you have an experience you can't find anywhere else."
* 'Susannah' will be staged in Denver through Aug. 8.