Fresh work seduces with retro opera appeal

Carlisle Floyd's new 'Cold Sassy Tree,' rooted locally, could become a perennial.

Classical Music

April 08, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Classical music is more often about decomposing than composing. Audiences crave the sounds of composers long dead, and shy away from just about anything freshly put down on paper. It wasn't always so. Strange as it may seem, there was a time when the public practically demanded new things to hear. This was especially true in the field of opera.

In the 19th century, an opera house that couldn't regularly offer something fresh by Rossini or Donizetti or Verdi or Meyerbeer wasn't going to make much of a splash. Today, only a relatively small number of opera companies will risk novelty with any kind of frequency, persistently breaking down resistance among its audiences and gradually getting people to welcome the flow of newness.

Other companies will take a bold step one season, face negative reactions from influential donors, and then promptly slink back into the comfort zone of "Barbers," "Bohemes" and "Carmens."

But it couldn't be much easier than it is now for opera companies to test unknown waters. That's because the predominant musical language among composers is, in one way or another, neo-romantic. The chances are excellent that a new opera will fall gently on unsuspecting ears. Whether the rest of the product -- the libretto, the staging, the singing -- will be as easy to digest is another matter, but it's hard to find contemporary operas with music that will set teeth on edge.

William Bolcom's "A View from the Bridge," John Harbison's "The Great Gatsby" and Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking" are just three examples from the past few years of new operas that are filled with old sounds -- lyrical melodic lines, tonal harmonic language. Those examples also happen to involve strong story lines, an obviously key ingredient in opera.

It's still too early to know if those pieces will enter the active repertoire. But it's a fairly safe bet that another new work, Carlisle Floyd's "Cold Sassy Tree," will enjoy longevity. For one thing, unlike Bolcom, Harbison and Heggie, Floyd already has a proven track record; his "Susannah" (1955) and "Of Mice and Men" (1970) are among the most frequently performed American operas to this day. ("Of Mice and Men" will be presented by Washington Opera next season.)

"Cold Sassy Tree" also has the tactical advantage of being a five-company co-commission. This guarantees five separate productions around the country, a great way to establish a foothold in the public consciousness. So far, three of the companies have staged it -- Houston Grand Opera (which gave the world premiere last May), Austin Lyric Opera (in January) and San Diego Opera, which finished its run last weekend.

The other two commissioning companies will present the work in 2003 -- Opera Carolina and Baltimore Opera. Significantly, a company that was not involved in the commission, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, will produce "Cold Sassy Tree" next season, a sign that Floyd's latest opus has legs.

That's not surprising. The cognoscenti of New York may still refuse to accept the fact ("Susannah" ran into some stiff brickbats when it finally made its Metropolitan Opera debut two years ago), but everyone else knows that Carlisle Floyd gives good opera. He knows what he's doing, knows what makes an interesting story, knows how to make an interesting story affecting through music.

Skilled composer

Floyd has always had a keen, instinctive sense of theater, which is a lot rarer among opera composers than you might think. Like Gian Carlo Menotti, Floyd writes his own librettos; like Menotti's, Floyd's librettos can stand quite firmly on their own. Again like Menotti (and very few other 20th century opera composers), Floyd understands how to pace the action, how to intensify certain emotions and subtly underscore others.

He shares with Menotti yet another trait -- unabashed romanticism. But Floyd's brand of it is decidedly his own. There's a strong flavor of Americana behind it, often reflected in folksy tunes and harmonies.

In a welcome foretaste of "Cold Sassy Tree," Baltimore Opera will stage Floyd's first theater work, "Slow Dusk," from 1949, at Artscape 2001 this July. It's a good opportunity for the uninitiated to get acquainted with the man and his music. Like many of his operas, "Slow Dusk" takes place in his native South and involves ordinary people.

He has an unusually strong connection to rural America, small-town America, simple-pleasures America. Setting English to music is a tricky business; Floyd does it effortlessly, especially when dealing with the rhythm of Southern speech. His characters sing as naturally as they would speak.

It's easy to understand the composer's attraction to Olive Ann Burns' 1984 best-selling novel, "Cold Sassy Tree."

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