Final Flowering

With 'Cold Sassy Tree,' Composer Carlisle Floyd Crafts an Opera to Crown His Brilliant Career

Final Flowering

In the parlor of a house in a small town in rural Georgia, a big, rough-hewn man with an unruly beard and fierce eyes stands delivering a homemade sermon. It is his response to the rejection of his new wife by the pious congregation of a local church, and it rolls out of him like summer thunder. In broad, deep tones, he bellows, "And when God put us here, He said ..." -- and underneath his words timpani rumbles, louder and louder as he holds the last word, which is pitched above the rest, giving it the feel of the clarion call of some angelic herald. And then, with sunbursts of horns and strings to accompany him, he delivers the Lord's declaration in song, singing, "I give you eyes to see the world and all the beauties in it, like the sun comin' up or butterflies. So don't mock Me by being blind!" The words issuing forth in a slow, stately procession, with key words accented -- "sun" pitched high as heaven, "mock" punched out like a bolt from above, "blind" held and sung with imperial force. A pause filled with a brooding murmur from the orchestra, then another declaration, with the same flashes of musical illumination and the speaker's voice even more regal, more commanding, more tender: "I give you ears so that you can hear all the sweet sounds on this earth, like the laughter of children or a fiddle tune. So don't mock Me by being deaf!" Another pause, another orchestral murmur, but this one growing in intensity and interrupted by a lone horn's echo of the bursts of sound, heralding the declaration's finale. Then, a swelling of strings that rises up behind the singer in long, fluid lines as he proclaims, "Most of all, I give you a heart that's as wide as the sky, that can fill with joy or with pain. So don't mock Me ..." -- the last two words pitched higher and held longer than before, almost pleading -- "... with an empty heart ..." -- then the musical phrase turning in a new direction, dropping in pitch, then ascending -- "... 'cause that says you have missed out on life! ..." -- the last word sung in triumph, high and loud and long, then a beat of silence, after which comes the final phrase, a sober, sorrowful conclusion, "... that you've scorned why I put you here.'"

This segment consumes less than two minutes of the three hours of Cold Sassy Tree, and it may not be the most representative two minutes of this work that balances drama with comedy, but it does represent the level of artistry and craft at work in this new opera by Carlisle Floyd. Character, atmosphere, mood, dramatic tension -- all are eloquently established in the music and text. The words evoke the South, especially the South of a bygone time, with its deeply personal sense of faith and relationship to God. The sounds support both the clouded emotions within the speaker, still smarting from the treatment of his wife, and the divine authority of a mighty God (with due credit to bass-baritone Dean Peterson, who interpreted the piece so powerfully in the work's original staging and will sing it again in the Austin Lyric Opera production running January 12-15). Lines rise and fall, taking us heavenward one moment, into radiant glory, then earthward, into gloom and pain. The intensity of the piece builds carefully, deliberately, marching toward an inevitable conclusion, yet it still provides room for the complexity of feeling to be expressed. The piece is relatively brief; still, it reveals this distinguished composer working at the height of his powers, infusing what may be his final work with the lessons of a lifetime.

Based on the popular novel by Olive Ann Burns, Cold Sassy Tree is the tale of an unlikely marriage between a gruff old Southern storekeeper and a woman half his age. Between the fact that she is so much younger -- and a Yankee -- and the fact that he proposes to her just weeks after the passing of his first wife, the pair scandalizes the small Georgia town from which the work takes its name. The opera follows their union as it blooms from business arrangement to genuine romance despite their differences and the disapproving looks of their neighbors.

The story may seem "small" by some operatic standards, but that didn't seem to matter to the audiences and critics who saw its world premiere in Houston last spring. They received it exuberantly and showered it with praise. Wes Blomster of the London magazine Opera Now was prompted to write, "I have never before heard a new opera that evoked such enthusiasm from the audience." And the acclaim from the press was equally spirited. "A minor masterpiece of musical storytelling and assured theatrical know-how," wrote Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle. The Austin American-Statesman's Michael Barnes noted that "Floyd's latest opera lingers like the fragrance of jasmine on a summer evening." "One must recognize Floyd's musical genius," wrote the Toronto Globe and Mail's Philip Anson. "His composing is richly melodic, stylistically inventive, always accessible, yet never cheap."

John McVeigh, as Will Tweedy, and the company of the Houston Grand Opera production of <i>Cold Sassy Tree</i>
John McVeigh, as Will Tweedy, and the company of the Houston Grand Opera production of Cold Sassy Tree

The response proved a boon not only for Houston Grand Opera, which produced the premiere, but for its four partners in commissioning the work from Floyd: San Diego Opera, Opera Carolina, Baltimore Opera, and our own Austin Lyric Opera. Each of the four will stage a production of Cold Sassy Tree sometime over the next two seasons. Austin's is the first to follow the successful Houston premiere, and the composer has come to the city to observe his latest work being brought to life again.

In person, the man responsible for the booming sermon sung by the gruff storekeeper presents a striking contrast to the character he's written so masterfully. Where the merchant, Rucker Lattimore, is imposing, Carlisle Floyd is of modest stature. Where Lattimore is irascible, Floyd is congenial. Where Lattimore speaks loudly and bluntly, Floyd speaks graciously, with an almost courtly demeanor. The figure who brashly proposes a marriage of convenience to a woman young enough to be his daughter, who barrels through life without a care for what anyone might think of him, could hardly seem more different from this thoughtful, good-humored, gentlemanly composer.

And yet, Carlisle Floyd is Rucker Lattimore, at least in the way that every good writer is every character he writes. "I don't think you can be a musical dramatist without [identifying with your characters]," Floyd insists. When it comes to the characters in his works, he says, "I play every role. I think that's very important to understand. If you identify only with one character, then obviously the other characters are not going to be very well fleshed out, either musically or dramatically. I think you have to have a real emotional understanding of every character you deal with to write music for them."

Floyd clearly understands the land from which Lattimore springs. He is himself a man of the South, born in South Carolina in 1926 and reared in a succession of small Southern towns, the price he paid for being the son of a Methodist minister. "We moved so much," he recalls. "A move -- it's always very painful for children." And the situation wasn't helped by being "the preacher's kid." "It's not the best indoctrination for developing your own spiritual life," Floyd warns. "I think they say that most preacher's kids are either plaster saints or hellions. Usually the latter. There's something that incites that, in living in that kind of a goldfish bowl. You're unconsciously, subliminally aware all the time -- at least I think I was -- that you must not do anything to bring discredit on your father. Not that it ever occurred to us to do that. I think what I found most irksome was having to go to church all the time. My father was very staunch in thinking that we should be there, to represent the minister's family." And that sometimes meant three services a day.

Still, Floyd is mindful of the way his upbringing instilled in him qualities that have served him well during his long career, especially in the Seventies and Eighties, the lean years of opera. "You learn resilience, for one thing," he says. "We never wanted to be uprooted and have to make new friends. But you do. You put your roots down in other places. That was probably an advantage for me. One thing you do learn is what I think is commonly called now social skills, a term which I am not particularly fond of. You do learn about getting along with people."

Dean Peterson as Rucker Lattimore delivering the sermon in Houston Grand Opera's production of <i>Cold Sassy Tree</i>
Dean Peterson as Rucker Lattimore delivering the sermon in Houston Grand Opera's production of Cold Sassy Tree

More significantly, Floyd's early life in this particular region ultimately fed his artistic work. "A lot of the material I have drawn on in my operas," he acknowledges, "has been the result of becoming acquainted with those rural people, knowing them very well. The thing, I have to say, that I love about the South: It tends to cherish and elevate its eccentrics, rather than try to do a psychiatric diagnosis of why they are the way they are. They enjoy the fact that they're peculiar or different, and I think that's a particularly appealing aspect to Southern literature. That, to me, heightens the humanity of a work. I'm certainly not a professional Southerner. There's much about the South I detest. Like most Southerners, I love it and hate it at the same time."

Those opposing passions are evident in his work and have been from the outset, beginning with the opera that launched Floyd as a composer. In Susannah, written in 1953, he transposed the Biblical tale of Susannah and the elders to backwoods Tennessee. The result was a musical drama richly evocative of rural life in the South and fiercely critical of the destructive power of narrow minds that can fester there. The good and ill in Southern sensibilities also appeared in his 1962 work The Passion of Jonathan Wade and Willie Stark, his 1981 adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. They appear again in Cold Sassy Tree -- in fact, though the uplifting outcome of the new work is at a polar extreme from the tragic conclusion of the early work, the territory he tills in his latest opera is much the same as in Susannah: the small town, the vivid personalities, the prudishness, the deeply ingrained prejudices. In a sense, Floyd has come full circle, revisiting late in his career the place where he began it.

However, Floyd's return to this territory finds the landscape of American opera greatly changed from the Fifties. While that decade saw a flourishing of important works -- Floyd's Susannah, Leonard Bernstein's Candide and Trouble in Tahiti, Aaron Copland's The Tender Land, Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, Samuel Barber's Vanessa, Giancarlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, among others -- the national scene was still largely restricted to New York, especially in terms of premieres. And that remained true for many years. But in the Seventies, opera began to seriously take root across the country, with the number of companies doubling in the past 30 and attendance growing by more than 25% in the Eighties. Now, more than 100 opera companies can be found from coast to coast, in midsize as well as large cities, and interest in new opera is at an all-time high. Last season, 16 new American operas premiered along with Cold Sassy Tree. And the explosion of new work is continuing with the recent premieres of Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, William Bolcom's A View From the Bridge, John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, and Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking.

The composer is mindful of the change in the cultural landscape. "It's been a long, long struggle, and I think that struggle has finally been won," he says. In the Fifties and Sixties, he and his colleagues felt that they "had to convince audiences that we were not creating something that was so arcane that they would have absolutely no relationship to it. There were so many set ideas about what opera was on the part of the general public, and it's amazing how they've been dispelled, a lot of them. [It used to be] unheard of for a new opera to be sold out. I know that in San Francisco, they had to put in two additional performances for Dead Man Walking. Cold Sassy Tree, the last two or three performances were sold out. The idea of [a new opera] being box office poison has been pretty much set aside."

That he is still, a half-century into the game, able to reap the benefits of this New Operatic Age is not lost to Floyd. "It's marvelous to come at this point in my career, which is in the twilight, to say the least, to have this kind of audience response to a late work. It's thrilling. I never expected to see it happen. I would hate to think that the last opera I ever wrote -- I don't know that this will be the last but I suspect it might -- would have ended up having no audience. But I feel that I've been able to put everything I've learned over 40 years into doing this piece."

Certainly, that lifetime mastery of his art and craft can be gleaned from Rucker Lattimore's sermon. And yet, Floyd says that it was one of "the most difficult scenes" to create. It was, he says, "one of the biggest challenges because a sermon is really not a part of the vocabulary of opera. It's basically didactic; you're telling instead of showing, so I knew it had to be terribly concentrated. It was an adventure in cutting. I kept trimming it and trimming it and trimming it. I must have cut it by half. You get the point pretty quickly in the music, and yet you have to build it properly to its final flowering. I thought, what is the emotional content here? The emotional content of the peak of it, the climax, is pretty clear. It's something very exultant. But working into it and properly building it were the problems. So it was an adventure in compression. I listened to it last night for the first time in about six months, and I'm satisfied with it."

In fact, on this morning after seeing a run-through of the ALO production, Floyd is willing to extend that satisfaction to the opera as a whole. Hearing a composer express satisfaction with a work on the eve of what is only its second production might seem unusual, given that second productions are frequently where writers and composers frantically try to change all the things they felt didn't work the first time around. "I'm happy to say that there's very little I would change, if anything, at this point," says Floyd. "I did a lot of trimming beforehand, and there were enough alterations that went into the first version, but it's certainly not been unusual in my past history to make very big revisions between the first and second productions. My opera Wuthering Heights, I rewrote the entire third act. Bilby's Doll, I cut probably 30 minutes. Willie Stark, I cut 20 minutes out of. But with all these years of experience, knowing that I tended to do this, I wanted to do it in advance. Listening to it last night, I found nothing, except one place that I thought maybe could be shortened a little bit. But then I got such a vehement reaction from the conductor and the pianist -- 'Don't touch it!' -- that I felt reassured. When you're in the midst of rehearsal, having worked with something for so long, you unfortunately lose your sense of it. It's like losing your taste for food: You don't really know what you're savoring anymore." But with that six months' distance from the long rehearsals and premiere, coming to it fresh, he says, "I felt very satisfied and enormous relief at the same time. I don't mean to sound self-serving, but I enjoyed what I had written in the way the audience enjoyed it. I thought, 'I love a lot of this music.' But if I didn't love it, why should I write it to begin with?"

Rucker Lattimore's sermon in Cold Sassy Tree doesn't end with the passage quoted above. Floyd has the storekeeper go to say, in low, solemn but heartfelt tones, a line that seems to come from the heart of this distinguished artist who sees himself in twilight, a line that seems a benediction for character and creator: "When God decides my time is up, I'll be heartbroke to turn loose of this world. But I'll still be grateful to Him that in His wisdom, His infinite wisdom, He put me here."

Amen. end story

Cold Sassy Tree runs Jan. 12-15, Friday-Monday, at Bass Concert Hall. Call 472-5992 for information.

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