His music remains in vogue

Opera: Carlisle Floyd, composer of `Of Mice and Men,' is popular now more than ever.

Classical Music

October 30, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There isn't a trace of smugness in Carlisle Floyd, but there easily could be.

This is the composer who has often been dismissed by pundits, especially in the cultural citadel of New York, as hopelessly old-fashioned, romantic, even provincial. His tuneful music - almost a cross between Puccini and Copland - and straightforward dramas were supposed to have passed their sell-by date long ago, or at least be confined to the unsophisticated provinces.

And yet, at 75, Floyd's more popular than ever.

"I do feel vindicated," the composer says with a shy smile, while in D.C. recently to attend the Washington Opera's striking production of his Of Mice and Men.

"I have been a lone voice for a long time. I always hoped American opera would be accepted in the repertory every season, wouldn't just be a token. I certainly never expected to see this happen in my lifetime."

Floyd's latest opera, Cold Sassy Tree, based on the Olive Ann Burns novel about early-1900s Georgia, has been enthusiastically received by audiences in several cities since its premiere last year in Houston. It's due for a performance by the Baltimore Opera Company (a co-commissioner of the work) in 2003.

Susannah, the updated biblical tale that put Floyd on the map in 1955, always seems to be on stage somewhere; it has received more than 800 performances so far. This season alone, it's at the Palm Beach Opera, Shreveport Opera and Eugene Opera.

And his 1970 treatment of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, about the hapless drifters George and Lennie, hasn't lacked attention. In addition to Washington, the opera will turn up later this season in Houston and make its debut in two Canadian cities.

In 1999, the mighty Metropolitan Opera finally got around to staging something by Floyd - Susannah - during the same season that the New York City Opera was reviving Of Mice and Men.

"That was a banner year," Floyd says. "I was very happy the Met did Susannah; it conferred repertory status on the work."

As the 21st century gets underway, Floyd's conservative style hardly sounds anachronistic. Neo-romanticism has become the prevalent musical language, easily supplanting the fierce atonality that experts once expected to dominate this era's musical scene. And tonal-style American operas are the rage now; such high-profile works as William Bolcom's A View From the Bridge and John Harbison's The Great Gatsby are but two recent examples.

This past summer, Of Mice and Men turned out to be the surprise smash of the Bregenz Festival in Austria - a new frontier for Floyd. It's this new staging, directed by Francesca Zambello and designed by Richard Hudson (who did The Lion King), that's in the Washington Opera production through Nov. 12.

"Francesca has done a remarkable job," says Floyd, who often has served as stage director for Of Mice and Men. "She got this one really right. It's a very real and extremely immediate production.

"And Richard Hudson has come up with some things I would never have conceived of. For the barn scene, there isn't a bale of hay anywhere, just oversized farm machinery and a row of scythes - all this gleaming silver. The whole scene looks so menacing; it puts you on edge immediately."

Although Of Mice and Men has been performed in Europe before, the Bregenz performance was a major coup for an American opera. Europeans, especially the critics, have been known to take a condescending attitude toward music from this country.

Significantly, Floyd's opera opened the festival, a prestigious gesture in itself.

"I didn't realize it was going to be such an enormous state occasion," the composer says. "The president of Austria gave an address at the dinner afterward and talked a lot about the characters of George and Lennie to plead for compassion for the underclass in Austria - not just tolerance, but respect, for the Georges and Lennies in Austria. That was very thrilling for me."

Floyd retired from teaching at Florida State University in 1996 (he still makes his home in Tallahassee), and is enjoying a more relaxing pace these days - at least when he isn't attending performances of his operas.

"I scrub kitchen floors from time to time, and clean out my sock drawer," he says in his soft Southern drawl. "I don't have any plans right now to write another opera. But I'm not going to say `never.' "

Annapolis season-opener

The Annapolis Opera opens its 29th season this weekend with the perennial Puccini favorite La boheme. Most of the singers in the young cast will be making their debuts with the company, including soprano Marcie Ley as Mimi, tenor Scott Priest as Rodolfo, Jennifer Ayres as Musetta and Andrew Krikawa as Marcello.

Ron Getz will conduct the performances at 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. Tickets cost $48. Pre-performance meals and lectures also are available at an additional cost. Call 410-267-8135.

Walters events

Two area music organizations are making the most of the newly reopened Walters Art Museum.

The Handel Choir of Baltimore, led by T. Herbert Dimmock, will give a "musical tour of the Walters" - a program from Gregorian chant to Samuel Barber, complementing various works on exhibit.

The concert is at 3 p.m. Sunday at the museum, 600 N. Charles St. Tickets cost $14 to $25. Call 410-366-6544.

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Anne Harrigan, will hold its annual gala at the Walters with a program of music spanning several centuries at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 8. There will be receptions before and after the performance and a viewing of the museum.

For tickets, call 410-308-0402.

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