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Carlisle Floyd is one of the foremost composers and librettists of opera in the United States today. Born in 1926 in Latta, South Carolina, the son of a Methodist minister, Floyd's experiences as a child were that of the Southern Bible Belt with its travelling preachers, revival meetings and strong sense of community. He was also aware of the darker side of Southern fundamentalism; its bigotry and hypocrisy.
Piano and drawing were large parts of Floyd's life and, in fact, he expected to pursue a career in painting. However, music prevailed and he followed his teacher, Ernst Bacon, to Syracuse University in the 1940s. There Floyd received both a B.M. and M.M. in piano and composition. During his stay at Syracuse, Floyd began writing a number of one-act plays including Slow Dusk, a one-act piece based on a short story he had written. His style was uniquely American and he was comfortable with that identity.
In 1951, he began his teaching career at Florida State University where he remained until 1976, when he was appointed Professor of Music at the University of Houston. During his tenure at Florida State, Floyd completed his opera Susannah , which first premiered at Florida State in 1955 and later at the New York City Opera in 1956. Based on the biblical story of Susannah and the Elders, this opera takes place in a rural community in the Tennessee mountains. Floyd compared this story to the anti-communist rhetoric spouted by then Senator Joseph McCarthy. After its premiere, Susannah went on to win the New York Music Critics' Circle Award and travelled as the American entry to the Brussels World Fair in 1958. Since then, it has been produced more than 800 times.
Floyd's subsequent operas include Wuthering Heights (1958,) The Passion of Jonathan Wade (1962; revised in 1991,) Of Mice and Men (1970,) Bilby's Doll (1976,) Willie Stark (1981,) and Cold Sassy Tree (2000.) Like Susannah, Of Mice and Men has been called "a masterpiece - an extraordinary piece of music theatre" and, though based on the Steinbeck novel of the same title, Floyd found it necessary to make some departures from the original. "George, to realize their dream, has the impossible task of keeping Lennie out of trouble," said Floyd, describing the main story line. In an article from the 1971 Opera Journal , Floyd explains:
Floyd's latest project is Cold Sassy Tree , adapted from Olive Anne Burns' novel of the same title. Commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and San Diego Opera, Cold Sassy Tree is a comic opera named for the rural Georgia town in which the action takes place. Set at the turn of the century, its principal character is Rucker Lattimore, a store-owner in his fifties who, two weeks after the death of his wife, marries a much younger woman. The premiere of this new opera will take place on April 14, 2000 in Houston.
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