Carlisle Floyd

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Carlisle Floyd
Carlisle Floyd with National Medal of Arts award.jpg
Carlisle Floyd with National Medal of Arts in 2004
Born(1926-06-11)June 11, 1926
DiedSeptember 30, 2021(2021-09-30) (aged 95)
Known for Operas
Notable work List of compositions
Awards National Medal of Arts
Full list

Carlisle Sessions Floyd (June 11, 1926 September 30, 2021) was an American composer primarily known for his operas. These stage works, for which he wrote not only the music but also the librettos, typically engage with themes from the American South, particularly the Post-civil war South, the Great Depression and rural life. His best known opera, Susannah , is based on a story from the Biblical Apocrypha, transferred to contemporary rural Tennessee, and written for a Southern dialect. It was premiered at Florida State University in 1955, with Phyllis Curtin in the title role. When it was staged at the New York City Opera the following year, the reception was initially mixed; some considered it a masterpiece, while others degraded it as a 'folk opera'. Subsequent performances led to an increase in Susannah's reputation and the opera quickly became among the most performed of American operas.


In 1976, he became M. D. Anderson professor at the University of Houston. He co-founded the Houston Opera Studio for the training of young singers. Floyd is regarded as the "Father of American opera". [1]

Life and career

Youth and education

Floyd was born in Latta, South Carolina, on June 11, 1926, to Carlisle and Ida (née Fenegan) Floyd. [2] [3] His father was his namesake and a Methodist minister at the local church; [4] on both sides his family was descended from among the first European immigrants to the Carolinas. [5] He had a sister, Ermine, along with a sizable extended family. [6] Being raised in the Southern United States, Floyd would have been well aquatinted with typical Southern ideals of the time, such as Southern hospitality, extra caution to avoid offending others, Protestantism and a general disliking towards the Northerners. [7] Also prominent in his Southern upbringing were revival meetings, and the "small-town bigotry," which later influenced his work. [8] [n 1] Though the family was not familiar with contemporary classical music, [9] Floyd's mother enjoyed music and poetry, often hosting family hymn singing events. [10] She also gave Floyd his first piano lessons. [11] Floyd attended North High School in North Carolina. [12]

Though American involvement in World War II had begun in 1941, Floyd's asthma prevented his conscription. [13] He attended Converse College of Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1944, studying piano with composer Ernst Bacon. [3] In 1945 Bacon left Converse to become director of the music school at Syracuse University, New York, [3] a considerably more multicultural institution. [13] Floyd followed Bacon to Syracuse and received a Bachelor of Music in 1946. [3] The following year, Floyd became part of the piano faculty at Florida State University in Tallahassee. [11] He stayed there for thirty years, eventually becoming Professor of Composition. He received a master's degree at Syracuse in 1949. [5]

Emerging composer and Susannah

While at FSU, Floyd gradually became interested in composition. His first opera was Slow Dusk to his own libretto, and was produced at Syracuse in 1949. His next opera, The Fugitives, was seen at Tallahassee in 1951 but was withdrawn. [5]

Floyd's third opera was his greatest success: Susannah . It was premiered at Florida State at the Ruby Diamond Auditorium [11] in February 1955, with Phyllis Curtin in the title role and Mack Harrell as the Reverend Olin Blitch. The following year, the opera was given at the New York City Opera, winning him international recognition. [1] Erich Leinsdorf conducted, with Curtin and Norman Treigle as Blitch. The opera received the New York Music Critics' Circle Award. [1] It was selected to be America's official operatic entry at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, [1] [11] directed by Frank Corsaro, with Curtin, Treigle and Richard Cassilly. [11]

Further operas

Later in 1958, Floyd's Wuthering Heights (after Emily Brontë) premiered at the Santa Fe Opera, with Curtin as the heroine. [1] In 1960, at Syracuse, his solo cantata on biblical texts, Pilgrimage, was first heard with Treigle as soloist. The Passion of Jonathan Wade , commissioned by the Ford Foundation, was Floyd's most epic opera, set in South Carolina during the Reconstruction era. [14] It was premiered at the New York City Opera on October 11, 1962. Theodor Uppman, Curtin, Treigle and Harry Theyard performed in a large cast, conducted by Julius Rudel and directed by Allen Fletcher. [15] Floyd revised it in 1989 for performances at four major opera houses in the U.S., beginning at Houston Grand Opera. [14] [15]

Floyd's next opera was The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair, which was a comedy around Scottish settlers of the Carolinas. Patricia Neway and Treigle created the title roles with Rudel conducting. [16] The opera Markheim (after Robert Louis Stevenson) was first shown at the New Orleans Opera Association in 1966, with Treigle (to whom it was dedicated) and Audrey Schuh heading the cast. Floyd himself served as stage director. [17]

The opera Of Mice and Men (after John Steinbeck) was commissioned by the Ford Foundation. After a long gestation period, it was premiered at the Seattle Opera in 1970, directed by Corsaro. [1] A monodrama on the royal subject of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Flower and Hawk, premiered in Jacksonville, Florida, with Curtin directed by Corsaro. The production was also presented at Carnegie Hall. [18]

Bilby's Doll (after Esther Forbes) was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera where it was premiered in 1976 with Christopher Keene conducting and David Pountney directing. [1] Floyd composed Willie Stark (after Robert Penn Warren) also for Houston, where it was first heard in 1981 in a staging by Harold Prince. [1] After a hiatus of almost twenty years, another Floyd opera premiered in Houston in 2000, Cold Sassy Tree (after Olive Ann Burns). [1] Patrick Summers conducted, Bruce Beresford directed, and Patricia Racette led the cast. [2] It was subsequently produced by several American opera houses. [1]

In 1976, he became M. D. Anderson professor at the University of Houston. There, he co-founded the Houston Opera Studio, together with David Gockley, as an institution of the University of Houston and Houston Grand Opera, [1] with students including Michael Ching and Craig Bohmler. [19] [20]

Retirement and later years

Carlisle Floyd (second from right) at the National Endowment for the Arts honors in 2004, with NEA Chairman Dana Gioia (left), Leontyne Price and Richard Gaddes NEA Opera Honorees.jpg
Carlisle Floyd (second from right) at the National Endowment for the Arts honors in 2004, with NEA Chairman Dana Gioia (left), Leontyne Price and Richard Gaddes

After retirement from the university in Houston in 1996, Floyd lived in Tallahassee again. [11] He had composed a Piano Sonata in the 1950s (1957, two years after Susannah) for Rudolf Firkušný, who played it at a Carnegie Hall recital, but it languished until Daniell Revenaugh recorded it in 2009 at the age of 74. Revenaugh worked with the composer in learning the piece (Floyd himself had never learned it), and their rehearsal sessions and the live recording itself were filmed for posterity. The recording was made on the Alma-Tadema Steinway that graced the White House during the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. [21]

The Houston Grand Opera produced a new opera by Floyd on March 5, 2016, Prince of Players, a chamber opera about the 17th-century actor, Edward Kynaston, conducted by Summers. A live recording of the premiere was nominated for a Grammy Award. [1]

Floyd died on September 30, 2021, in Tallahassee, at the age of 95. [2] [22] He had no children, but was survived by four nieces, the daughters of Ermine. [11] His publisher Boosey and Hawkes, announced his death and did not relay the cause. [2]


Legacy and reputation

Floyd is primarily known for his operas, which make up the bulk of his compositional output. [3] Like Wagner and Menotti, Floyd wrote the librettos to his operas. [5] His best-known opera, [3] Susannah, is regarded as his magnum opus . [11] The National Public Radio's Tom Huizenga posits the work as suitable contender to be considered the archetypal "Great American Opera". [2] [n 2] Patricia Racette declared that "If it is not the greatest American opera, it's certainly among the great American operas". [2] According to Opera News , Susannah is the most frequently performed American opera after Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors . [11] The Daily Telegraph , however, claimed it is the most "widely performed" American opera, purportedly outnumbering some works by Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. [13] In addition to Gershwin and Menotti, Floyd stands with Adams, Barber, Bernstein, Glass and Rorem in the pantheon of preeminent 20th-century American opera composers. [3]

Selected recordings


  • Susannah (Studer, Hadley, Ramey; Nagano, 1993–94) Virgin Classics
  • Susannah (Curtin, Cassilly, Treigle; Andersson, 1962) [live] VAI
  • Wuthering Heights (Jarman, Mentzer, Markgraf; Mechavich, 2015) [live] Reference Recordings
  • Pilgrimage: excerpts (Treigle; Torkanowsky, 1971) Orion
  • The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair (Neway, Treigle; Rudel, 1963) VAI
  • Markheim (Schuh, Treigle; Andersson, 1966) [live] VAI
  • Of Mice and Men (Futral, Griffey, Hawkins; Summers, 2002) [live] Albany Records
  • Cold Sassy Tree (Racette; Summers, 2000) [live] Albany Records


  • Susannah: Revival Scene (Treigle; Yestadt, Treigle, 1958) [live] Bel Canto Society
  • Willie Stark (Jesse; J.Keene, McDonough, 2007) [live] Newport Classic
  • Susannah (Spatafora, Webb, Donovan; Sforzini, Unger, 2014) [live] Naxos

List of compositions

Floyd's compositions were published by Boosey and Hawkes. [n 3]

List of compositions by Carlisle Floyd [24] [n 4]

Works for stage

Slow Dusk 1949Musical play
1 act
The Fugitives1951
Unfinished stage work
Susannah 1955Musical drama
2 acts
Susanna and the Elders
Wuthering Heights 1958
rev. 1959
Musical drama
3 acts (& prologue)
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Passion of Jonathan Wade 1962
rev. 1991
3 acts
The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair 1963 Comic opera
1 act
Markheim 1966Opera
1 act
"Markheim" by Robert Louis Stevenson
Of Mice and Men 1970Musical drama
3 acts
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Flower and Hawk 1972Monodrama
1 act
Bilby's Doll 1976Opera
3 acts
A Mirror for Witches by Esther Forbes
Willie Stark 1981Opera
3 acts
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
Cold Sassy Tree 2000 Comic opera
3 acts
Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
Prince of Players [25] 2016Opera
2 acts
Fictional portrayal of Edward Kynaston's life

Other works

Pilgrimage1956Song cycle
Baritone and orchestra
Various biblical texts
Piano Sonata1957Solo piano
The Mystery1960Song cycle
Soprano and orchestra
Text by Gabriela Mistral
Introduction, Aria, and Dance1967Orchestral
In Celebration1971Orchestral
Citizen of Paradise1983Song cycle
Mezzo-soprano and piano
Text by Emily Dickinson
A Time to Dance1994Orchestral
Baritone, chorus and orchestra
Soul of Heaven1995Song cycle
Voice and piano
Text by various authors

Awards and honors

George W. Bush and Laura Bush present the National Medal of Arts, 2004 George W. and Laura Bush present the National Medal of Arts award to Carlisle Floyd.jpg
George W. Bush and Laura Bush present the National Medal of Arts, 2004

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  1. Floyd later reflected on these, saying "The thing that horrified me already as a child about revival meetings was mass coercion, people being forced to conform to something against their will without even knowing what they were being asked to confess or receive". [8]
  2. The idea of the "Great American Opera" originates from an earlier debate concerning the Great American Novel. [23]
  3. For Floyd's works on the Boosey and Hawkes website see: "Your search for 'Composer: Carlisle Floyd'". Boosey and Hawkes . Retrieved October 4, 2021.
  4. Only Floyd's major works are listed. Stiller 2003 notes that he wrote other solo piano and pedagogical works.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 "Carlisle Floyd Biography". Boosey & Hawkes . Retrieved August 13, 2008.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Huizenga, Tom (September 30, 2021). "Carlisle Floyd, a founding father of American opera, has died at age 95". National Public Radio . Retrieved September 30, 2021.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 McFadden, Robert D. (September 30, 2021). "Carlisle Floyd, Whose Operas Spun Fables of the South, Dies at 95". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved September 30, 2021.
  4. Holliday 2013, p. 1.
  5. 1 2 3 4 Stiller, Andrew (2003) [2001]. "Floyd, Carlisle" . Grove Music Online . Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.09881. ISBN   978-1-56159-263-0.(subscription or UK public library membership required)
  6. Holliday 2013, pp. 2–3.
  7. Holliday 2013, pp. 5–6.
  8. 1 2 Schwarz, K. Robert (November 1, 1998). "A Regional Favorite Gains Prominence". The New York Times . Retrieved October 6, 2021.
  9. Holliday 2013, p. 2.
  10. Holliday 2013, p. 6.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Dobson, Byron (September 30, 2021). "Tallahassee's world-famous opera composer, Carlisle Floyd, dies at 95". Tallahassee Democrat . Retrieved September 30, 2021.
  12. Holliday 2013, p. 46.
  13. 1 2 3 "Carlisle Floyd, composer of the record-breaking blockbuster opera Susannah – obituary" . The Daily Telegraph . October 6, 2021. Archived from the original on October 9, 2021. Retrieved October 12, 2021.(subscription required)
  14. 1 2 "'Jonathan Wade' Gets New Lease on Life". Los Angeles Times. September 24, 1990. Retrieved January 12, 2020.
  15. 1 2 "Floyd, Carlisle / The Passion of Jonathan Wade (1962, rev.1989)". Boosey & Hawkes . Retrieved January 12, 2020.
  16. "Carlisle Floyd Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair – Opera". Boosey & Hawkes . Retrieved October 4, 2021.
  17. "Carlisle Floyd Markheim – Opera". Boosey & Hawkes . Retrieved October 4, 2021.
  18. Ericson, Raymond (May 21, 1972). "FLORIDA PLAYERS REGAIN STABILITY (Published 1972)". New York Times . Retrieved October 4, 2021.
  19. "Career Guide: Latest Additions & Changes" Archived September 23, 2015, at the Wayback Machine . Central Opera Service Bulletin. Vol. 22, No. 4., Winter/Spring 1981. p. 34.
  20. Ching, Michael. "Carlisle Floyd". Opera and Beyond. September 28, 2011.
  21. "Tallahassee Magazine: Events, Food, Culture, Home and Style coverage for the Tallahassee Area". Archived from the original on November 30, 2010. Retrieved December 27, 2015.
  22. Salazar, Francisco (September 30, 2021). "Obituary: American Opera Composer Carlisle Floyd Dies at 95". Opera Wire. Retrieved September 30, 2021.
  23. "The View From Up There". The Guardian . November 7, 1999. Retrieved October 4, 2021.
  24. Information is from Stiller 2003 unless otherwise noted.
  25. Kaliss, Jeff (July 31, 2020). "Carlisle Floyd Takes on Tangled Issues of Sex and Identity in Prince of Players". San Francisco Classical Voice. Retrieved October 3, 2021.
  26. Thomas Holliday (2013). Falling Up: The Days and Nights of Carlisle Floyd, The Authorized Biography. Syracuse University Press. p. 179. ISBN   9780815610038.
  27. "Florida State News and Events". Florida State University . Retrieved October 4, 2021.
  28. "Carlisle Floyd Receives Honorary Degree | Dickinson College". Dickinson College . Retrieved October 4, 2021.
  29. "American Choral Directors Association". Archived from the original on March 8, 2016. Retrieved March 27, 2016., Retrieved March 2016
  30. Libby Fairhurst (October 31, 2005). "Carlisle Floyd's American opera 'Susannah' returns to FSU stage that launched its 1955 debut". Retrieved October 4, 2021.
  31. “The Fifteenth Year – Opera Tampa”. Tampa Bay Magazine. September 2009, pg 194. Retrieved February 28, 2013.
  32. "Man of Music Carlisle Floyd Sounds The Final Chord – Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia". Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity of America. October 1, 2021. Retrieved October 4, 2021.


Further reading