This past Saturday, the Tulsa Opera hosted “An Evening With Carlisle Floyd” at TU’s Lorton Performance Center. Floyd is hailed as the “Father of Modern Opera” and is well known for works such as “Susannah” and an operatic version of “Of Mice and Men.”
“Of Mice and Men” was featured at the Tulsa Opera this weekend, so Floyd’s appearance at the LPC was particularly poignant for local opera fans.
“An Evening With Carlisle Floyd” consisted of a classic fireside chat setup, with two plush chairs placed side-by-side onstage. One was intended for Floyd himself, while the other was occupied by Rich Fisher, General Manager of Public Radio Tulsa and the evening’s moderator.
I must confess that, having no background knowledge about American opera, I had little understanding of Mr. Floyd’s contributions to the field.
For this reason, I was a little taken aback when he walked onstage and was almost immediately greeted with a standing ovation. Whether this was due to the effects of his works or just the affections of over-zealous opera lovers I can’t say for sure, but it certainly struck me as notable.
Fisher moderated the conversation in a conversational, friendly way while still keeping pace with a series of well-placed questions about Floyd’s work, his background, his composing methods and the inspirations that led to some of his greatest works.
While Floyd is an adept storyteller and engaging speaker, I did find that the conversation was a bit dry at first simply because it was (unsurprisingly) directed at those who already had a fairly extensive knowledge of his life and works. The purpose of the talk was not to inform but rather to extrapolate on the nuances of Floyd’s work in a personal manner.
Floyd is notable for two outstanding traits in his work: First, his commitment to a unique brand of purely American opera, and second, his tendency to both compose and write the libretto (the words or script) for his operas. Usually, a composer and a librettist will work together to create an opera; Floyd is both.
The discussion became particularly engaging when it was turned toward political and social commentary in his works. Though Floyd stated that he never consciously chose to feature politically controversial themes in his operas, he admits that his works are influenced by the time periods in which they are based.
Born in 1926, Floyd has lived through most major developments in 20th century America, and I thought it was fascinating to hear the voices of poignant American issues in his timeline of works—for example, traces of McCarthyism in “Susannah” and the plight of migrant workers in “Of Mice and Men.”
The evening also featured performances of some of Floyd’s work by the Tulsa Opera Studio and Tulsa Youth Opera.
To be perfectly honest, I’m still not sure what I thought of it—I am by no means an opera expert, but it struck me as very strange compared to the perfectly timed symmetrical grace of classical European opera. Floyd’s music was instead discordant and haunting, with a lilting and almost disconcerting medley of melodies.
In conclusion, “An Evening With Carlisle Floyd” may have meant more to an avid opera fan than it did to myself. That said, it was still an enjoyable experience and an opportunity to learn about one of the most poignant voices in American opera.