The Florentine, Carlisle Floyd and their Susannah
The pious townsfolk of New Hope Valley, Tennessee, spend much of Scene 1 of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah gossiping about the beautiful, unattached Susanna. The married women, especially, resent the way their husbands ogle the girl at the church square dance. They peg her as the town hussy.
That’s what people say about Susannah in this 1955 opera, which the Florentine Opera will stage this weekend at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. In Scene 2, we find out who she really is: A sensitive young woman who can look beyond the misery of her backwoods poverty and see the beauty around her. Under a canopy of stars, she sings: “Ain’t it a pretty night? The sky’s so dark and velvet-like…”
This exquisite aria tells us that this girl is not the trollop the gossips make her out to be. This music must win the hearts of the audience and put the audience firmly in her corner.
“Ain’t it a pretty night,” in addition to its crucial role in the opera, has become a must-sing for American sopranos. A YouTube search yields a long list of performances by everyone from undergraduate voice students to major opera stars to staff sergeant Rose Ryon with the US Army Field Band. Floyd’s first Susannah was Phyllis Curtin, his muse for several subsequent operas.
“Singers have told me that it’s the sopranos’ national anthem,” Floyd said, from his home in Tallahassee, Fla. “I want to tell you I’m hugely pleased to hear that.”
Floyd, 85, wrote both the music and the lyrics to Susannah, one of the few American operas to gain a firm toehold in the repertoire. He based it on the Bible story of Susannah and the Elders. Seems the pious churchmen spy a lovely girl bathing nude in a stream…
This will be the Florentine’s first staging of this piece, although the company did put on Floyd’s 1970 Of Mice and Men in 2003. Floyd — the son of a South Carolina preacher — will attend.
“I’m just coming to have a good time,” he said. “It’s too late to do any coaching, unless there’s something glaring. Or if I’m asked.”
“Pretty night” only slightly overshadows the other hit tune from Susannah, The trees on the mountain. Floyd refers to both as “character arias,” which do not advance the plot but say a lot about a person.
“I’m still very fond of ‘trees on the mountain,'” Floyd said.”It’s like a folk song. It pretty much wrote itself.
Floyd has worked on it with many sopranos over the years. Most-proffered advice: “It’s adagio, not andante. The line is almost like an exhalation.”
Soprano Betty Waynne Allison will have the pleasure, and the challenge, of singing both arias. This will be her debut both at the Florentine and in the role.
“I’ve known for a month that the composer is coming,” she said Tuesday, at the Florentine’s Downtown office. “I’m trying not to think about it. When the composer is there, you feel a responsibility to an actual person. You don’t necessarily feel that with Mozart.”
Allison, 30, grew up on her family’s farm in on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, and recently moved back there from Toronto. Her entry into opera marked an abrupt shift in her life. She attended the nearby University of Victoria, got a music education degree, and taught at her old high school. She was thinking about going back for her master’s degree — good for the old pay grade — when she heard about an audition for the Canadian National Opera Company apprenticeship program. She’d always been a good singer and gave it a try, though she didn’t know much at all about opera. She’d taken singing lessons locally, though, and had an inkling about her own talent.
“I knew five arias,” she said, laughing. “I was so dumb. But I got into the program. That was in 2006. And now here I am today. It’s crazy.”
Allison has a very nice career going. She could move back to the west coast farm because her Toronto home was mostly vacant, because she’s flying all over the place singing all the time. The size of her voice might have something to do with that. Light lyric voices abound. Allison’s is developing into a big, weighty voice, and they are in demand. She’s well-positioned for Susannah, who is no waif, vocally or as a character. The opera ends with her wielding a shotgun to keep a mob at bay.
“Vocally, Susannah fits really well — except for ‘Ain’t it a pretty night,'” she said. “I’ve been in a bit of a battle with myself. I have this vision of the sound I want for it — pristine, beautiful, glass-like, lyric. I hear light sopranos sing it that way. But that’s not the rest of the role. And that’s not necessarily me. I’ve been trying all sorts of things to get to that vision of the sound I have in my head. Joe (Mechavich, the conductor and a friend of the composer), has been telling me to just breath and be myself.”
You can’t go wrong with that advice. And regardless of the finer points of vocal technique, Allison knows just what she’s after in sentiment.
“Everyone else keeps telling her who she is,” Allison said. “They’ve made up their minds about someone else and persecute her.”
Eventually, they — and especially the hypocritical Rev. Olin Blitch — embitter her. Susannah is a very different woman at the end than at the beginning.
“Pretty night’ is the last time you see her as what she was,” Allison said. “She’s happy in just two scenes in the whole opera, and this is one of them. It’s a beautiful night and life is good.”
Cast and Credits: William Florescu, Stage Director; Joseph Mechavich, Conductor; Betty Waynne Allison, Susannah; Wayne Tigges, Blitch; Jonathan Boyd, Sam; Rodell Rosel, Little Bat; John Tiranno, Elder Hayes;Jesse Enderle, Elder McLean; Katherine Pracht, Mrs. McLean;Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
Performance Information and Tickets: The show runs March 16 at 7:30 p.m. and March 18 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets start at $30; call (414) 292-5700 or visit the Florentine’s websiteto order.