Boosey & Hawkes shared the death of American composer Carlisle Floyd, who died on September 30 at the age of 95 in Tallahassee, Florida.
Biographer Thomas Holliday writes an obituary retracing the immense career of one of America’s most influential opera creators.
Echoing Carlisle Floyd’s first great lyrical outpouring, Susannah’s “Ain’t It a Pretty Night,” the polymath genius slipped into his own party on September 30 in Tallahassee, Florida. Over the course of 95 years of life and creation, he forged skills in piano performance, creative writing, and the visual arts, all before entering the world of 20th century American opera – with two offerings of the 21st century – and to become its preeminent librettist and composer. Her compositional idiom is a very personal blend of approachable melody, polytonality, and Americana, mirroring the southern garden bed of her English-Irish-Scottish-Welsh transplants. As a librettist, he was the American avatar of Richard Wagner’s total artwork: lyrics and music by Carlisle Floyd.
He collaborated with many of the greatest artists of the 20th century. A modest list 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 towards his colleagues is legendary: Floyd could always be counted on to help any young artist or artist in crisis find his voice or his unique resolve. In his 90s, he mentored creative talents such 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 in the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia in 1623. Over generations, most of the family settled in the agrarian areas of South Carolina. Our Carlisle Sessions Floyd – his father the Methodist pastor by the same name – was born in the small town of Latta, South Carolina, on June 11, 1926, to Reverend Floyd and Ida Fenegan. Floyd and his sister Ermine grew up in a whirlwind of family reunions and visits, summer revival meetings, and frequent trips to the state for their father’s publications – all of this is a direct source for Susannah and her opera brothers and sisters.
Floyd’s mother, Ida, was his first piano teacher. With the exception of some potential Welsh bards lost in history, the Irish Fenegans were the source of his music. His first professional aspiration was to become a concert pianist and to this end he studied with titans like Ernst Bacon, Sidney Foster and Rudolf Firkusny. Acquaintances with actors, dancers, directors, choreographers and conductors rather oriented Floyd towards composition and, ultimately, towards opera. Ernst Bacon, also a renowned composer, opened the portal to Floyd’s modest debut opera: Slow Dusk, based on one of the composer’s first short stories, created with the Syracuse University Opera Workshop in May 1949. Its initial success led to 12 new operas over the next six decades; four of them, with significantly revised lyrics and music, bring the actual total to 17.
In order, they are: Fugitives, based on another short story by Floyd. After a disappointing production at Florida State University (FSU) in 1951, its composer entrusted it to the relative security of his collection given to the Library of Congress. Susannah (FSU, 1955) gained Floyd’s enthusiastic acceptance and eventual international popularity. Beginning his life at the Santa Fe Opera in 1958, Floyd edited Wuthering Heights for the New York City Opera the following year. Jonathan Wade’s Passion, a large tapestry from the Reconstruction Era, debuted at the New York City Opera in 1962; and in an extensive review, at the Houston Grand Opera in 1991.
The 1960s also saw the creation of The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair, an eighteenth-century Scottish immigrant one-act tale, 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 heavily revised treatment of John Steinbeck’s novel, found its first home at the Seattle Opera in 1970 and quickly became his most performed work after Susannah. The Jacksonville Symphony premiered Flower and Hawk, a one-act monodrama featuring the voice of historic Eleanor of Aquitaine, in 1972.
Floyd’s affiliation with the Houston Grand Opera centered on Bilby’s Doll (1976), based on Esther Forbes’ Mirror for Witches, a story of religious persecution in 17th century New England; and subsequently revised for the Houston Opera Studio in 1991-92. In 1981, Houston cast Willie Stark, the new version of Floyd from All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren.
After two decades of personal and professional upheaval, Floyd turned to Olive Ann Burns’ Cold Sassy Tree for Houston in 2000. This return to southern roots – described by one critic as the first major opera of the 21st century – has become the hallmark. third most popular work by Floyd. In early 2011, he turned to Jeffrey Hatcher’s play Compleat Female Stage Beauty and its 2004 film adaptation under the title Stage Beauty. The Houston premiere in March 2016 elevated Floyd, just weeks before his 90th birthday, to end-of-life lyrical landmarks such 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 had a distinguished teaching career at Florida State University (1949-1976) and two decades later at the University of Houston. In collaboration with Houston Grand Opera, whose training program for young artists, 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 drive to retire brought him back to family and friends in Tallahassee in 1996.
Floyd’s substantial non-operatic catalog includes small and large-scale song and choir cycles, a singularly stimulating piano sonata, study books, and several symphonic movements. Among its many awards and accolades, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1956 and a Ford Foundation grant in 1959 subsidized the prolonged and painful births of The Passion of Jonathan Wade, and in particular of mice and humans. The Metropolitan Opera National Company opened its first 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 receipt of the National Medal of Arts. In 2008, along with 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, the valiant daughters of his sister Ermine: Martha Matheny Solomon, Jane Floyd Matheny, Nancy Matheny Kitchin and Harriett Olive Matheny.
And, of course, by 13/17 revolutionary operas that touch the most sensitive pressure points of our human condition.
A Floyd’s centennial celebration is scheduled 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.