Boosey & Hawkes is sad to announce the death of American composer Carlisle Floyd, one of America's most influential creators of opera. Biographer Thomas Holliday writes an obituary tracing the immense career of the great composer.
Echoing Carlisle Floyd’s first grand lyric effusion, Susannah’s “Ain’t It a Pretty Night,” the polymath genius slipped into his own late evening on September 30 in Tallahassee, Florida. During 95 years of life and creation, he forged skills in piano performance, creative writing, and visual arts—all before launching himself into America’s 20th-century opera world—with two 21st-century offerings—and becoming its preeminent librettist and composer. His compositional idiom is a highly personal blend of accessible melody, polytonality, and Americana, reflecting the Southern garden bed of his English-Irish-Scottish-Welsh transplantings. As his own librettist, he was America’s avatar of Richard Wagner’s total work of art: words and music by Carlisle Floyd.
He collaborated with many of the 20th century’s greatest artists. A modest listing includes Frank Corsaro, Phyllis Curtin, Renée Fleming, David Gockley, Mack Harrell, Robert Holton, Jack O’Brien, Harold Prince, Samuel Ramey, Julius Rudel, and Norman Treigle. His generosity to colleagues is legendary: Floyd could always be depended on to help any young artist, or artist in crisis, find his or her unique voice or resolution. Into his 90s, he mentored such creative talents as Mark Adamo, Matt Aucoin, Jake Heggie, Henry Mollicone, and Rufus Wainwright.
Floyd’s American roots were deep and widespread: His first immigrant ancestor arrived at Virginia’s Jamestown colony in 1623. Over succeeding generations, most of the family settled in agrarian regions of South Carolina. Our Carlisle Sessions Floyd—his daddy the Methodist minister bore the same name—was born in the tiny town of Latta, SC, on June 11, 1926, to Reverend Floyd and Ida Fenegan. Floyd and sister Ermine grew up in a whirlpool of family gatherings and visits, summer revival meetings, and frequent moves around the state for their father’s postings—all of it direct source material for Susannah and her operatic siblings.
Floyd’s mother Ida was his first piano teacher. Excepting some potential Welsh bard lost to history, the Irish Fenegans were the font of his music. His first career aspiration was to become a concert pianist, and to that end, studied with such titans as Ernst Bacon, Sidney Foster, and Rudolf Firkusny. Acquaintances with actors, dancers, directors, choreographers, and conductors steered Floyd instead to composition, and ultimately to opera. Ernst Bacon, also a composer of note, opened the portal to Floyd’s modest operatic debut: Slow Dusk, based on one of the composer’s early short stories, premiered with Syracuse University’s Opera Workshop in May 1949. Its initial success led to 12 new operas over the next six decades; four of these, with substantially revised texts and music, bring the actual total to 17.
In order, they are: Fugitives, based on another Floyd short story. Following a disappointing production at Florida State University (FSU) in 1951, its composer consigned it to the relative safety of his collection donated to the Library of Congress. Susannah (FSU, 1955) won Floyd enthusiastic acceptance and eventual international popularity. Beginning its life at the Santa Fe Opera in 1958, Floyd revised Wuthering Heights for New York City Opera the following year. The Passion of Jonathan Wade, a grand Reconstruction-era tapestry, debuted at New York City Opera in 1962; and in a thorough revision, at Houston Grand Opera in 1991.
The ’60s also witnessed the creation of The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair, a one-act tale of 18th-century Scottish immigrants, to commemorate North Carolina’s Tercentenary (East Carolina College, Raleigh, 1963); and Markheim, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story with demonic overtones (New Orleans Opera, 1966).Of Mice and Men, Floyd’s much-revised treatment of John Steinbeck’s novel, found its first home at Seattle Opera in 1970, and quickly became his most-performed work after Susannah. The Jacksonville Symphony premiered Flower and Hawk, a one-act monodrama in the voice of the historical Eleanor of Aquitaine, in 1972.
Floyd’s affiliation with Houston Grand Opera bore Bilby’s Doll (1976), based on Esther Forbes’s Mirror for Witches, a tale of religious persecution in 17th-century New England; and subsequently revised for the Houston Opera Studio in 1991-92. In 1981, Houston mounted Willie Stark, Floyd’s retelling of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.
After two decades of personal and professional upheaval, Floyd turned to Olive Ann Burns’s Cold Sassy Tree for Houston in 2000. This return to southern roots—termed by one critic the first great opera of the 21st century—has become Floyd’s third most popular work. Toward the beginning of 2011, he turned to Jeffrey Hatcher’s play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, and its 2004 cinematic adaptation as Stage Beauty. The Houston premiere in March 2016 elevated Floyd, just weeks before his 90th birthday, to the ranks of such late-life operatic monuments as Claudio Monteverdi, Giuseppe Verdi, and Richard Strauss. If Jonathan Wade is Floyd’s Don Carlo, this engaging chamber opera, Prince of Players, is his Falstaff.
Floyd simultaneously enjoyed a distinguished teaching career at Florida State University (1949-1976) with two later decades at the University of Houston. In collaboration with Houston Grand Opera, whose young artist training program, he co-founded with David Gockley the Houston Opera Studio, mentoring a generation of singers, conductors, directors, and composers. After such a Promethean career, the impetus toward retirement pulled him back to family and friends in Tallahassee in 1996.
Floyd’s substantial non-operatic catalogue embraces small- and large-scale song and choral cycles, a singularly challenging piano sonata, books of etudes, and several symphonic movements. Among his many awards and honors, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1956 and a Ford Foundation grant in 1959 subsidized the protracted and painful births of The Passion of Jonathan Wade, and especially Of Mice and Men. The Metropolitan Opera National Company inaugurated its debut season with Susannah in 1965; and the parent company performed the work at Lincoln Center in 1999. In 2001, Floyd was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, followed in 2004 by his reception of the National Medal of Arts. In 2008, in the company of Leontyne Price, he became one of the first recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors awards.
Floyd and Kay Reeder, his wife of 53 years, had no children. He is survived by four nieces, his sister Ermine’s valiant daughters: Martha Matheny Solomon, Jane Floyd Matheny, Nancy Matheny Kitchin, and Harriett Olive Matheny.
And, of course, by 13/17 groundbreaking operas that touch the most sensitive pressure points of our human condition.
A celebration of Floyd’s centennial is planned for 2026. Memorials to honor his life, work, and service can be sent to the Texas Foundation for the Arts (501(c) (3), PO Box 667183, Houston, TX 77266
At Floyd’s invitation, Thomas Holliday wrote the authorized biography, Falling Up: The Days and Nights of Carlisle Floyd (Syracuse University Press, 2014).
Read more memorials in The New York Times, Washington Post, and NPR.
Photo: Daniel Tchetchik
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