OPERA REVIEW: Carlisle Floyd’s Prince of Players, presented by the little OPERA theatre of NY; and
INTERVIEW: with the work’s creator, acclaimed American composer Carlisle Floyd.
“You will be hearing more about Carlisle Floyd,” said Howard Taubman in 1956, writing in The New York Times of “a young composer who teaches at Florida State University,” whom Taubman deemed “meant for the lyric theatre.” And barely three years later, composer, critic, and educator Eric Salzman (also in the Times) already discerned in Floyd a voice that had “prepared the way for the burst of American works that followed.”
The young man has been busy ever since, and at 90 he’s back with his latest – Prince of Players, recently given full royal treatment for its New York premiere in a beautifully mounted, superbly sung and skillfully acted production by the little OPERA theatre of ny (LOTNY) at the Kaye Playhouse of Hunter College from February 23 through 26, 2017.
The excitement in 1956 centered on Floyd’s opera Susannah, a moral allegory set in the rural South, replete with haunting original turns on American folk idiom, a bold immediacy of language and dramaturgy, and a stance of fierce protest against oppression, hypocrisy and entrenched power.
Now, some six decades on, the great American burst that Floyd detonated still resounds – and Floyd has never ceased contributing his rebel whoop to its glorious noise. He has spun lyric yarns in at least ten subsequent works, including his 1970 Of Mice and Men (based on Steinbeck); 1981’s Willie Stark (based on Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men); and 2000’s Cold Sassy Tree (based on the celebrated novel by Olive Ann Burns).
The young composer of 1956 is now an acknowledged “dean” of American opera composers; and with the arrival of Prince of Players, he may as readily claim place as a kingpin.
“O, there be players that I have seen …”
Set in 1661, during the reign of Britain’s Restoration King Charles II, Prince of Players concerns the life and career of stage actor Ned Kynaston – beautiful (the gossipy Samuel Pepys is quoted in the prologue as calling him “the most beautiful woman in the house …. [and]the most beautiful man in London”) and brilliant, he was also the nonpareil among the era’s male players of female roles.
Kynaston was a superstar – until King Charles’ radical edict permitting female performers upon the stage for the first time in British history. At a blow, Kynaston and others of his ilk were displaced, bereft alike of adulation, livelihood, and sense of self.
“That was not a performance, sir,” Kynaston recriminates recklessly with the king. “That was my life!”
But what’s done is done, and the opera absorbingly follows Kynaston’s fortunes after his fall, through crises of both confused sexuality and gender identity. Having risen from an abused and orphaned youth to a fame based on androgynous allure and native histrionic skill, Kynaston now runs up against a perplexity about authentic human emotion. Having enjoyed indiscriminately the ardor of both men and women, he is devastated by the renunciation of his furtive quondam lover, the Duke of Buckingham, while remaining oblivious to the adoration of his female stage rival, Peg Hughes.
The actor also grapples with the anguish of trying to unlearn the insidiously ingrained artifices of conventionalized female stage behavior he had mastered – a gestural canon depicted as comparable to the arcana of kabuki theater or, indeed, geisha ritual. Kynaston’s halting and awkward attempts at transiting into male roles – and a male identify – are mined brilliantly for both comedy and pathos.
In short, Prince of Players proves a uniquely rich and multi-layered work – part social satire, part psychological exegesis (call it “Floydian” analysis) – as it discourses movingly and melodically on the interpenetration of art and self-image, society and soul.
LOTNY’s production was double-cast to allow performances on four consecutive days. Viewed here at the opening (February 23), the players proved topnotch. Baritone Michael Kelly, as Kynaston (alternating with baritone Shea Owens, not viewed here), dauntlessly rode out the whiplash reversal of the ill-starred celebrity’s fortunes. Kelly’s voice was rich, yet effortlessly negotiated the finta register required for his turn as Desdemona and other distaff sequences within the opera.
Soprano Maeve Höglund (who alternated with Jessica Sandidge, not viewed here) as Margaret “Peg” Hughes – Kynaston’s dresser and eventual stage rival and replacement – exhibited luscious vocal sensuality and luminous emotion. The character’s two standout arias (one in which she confides her secret, unrequited love for Kynaston) are highpoints of Floyd’s admirably varied score, and were ideally served.
Other noteworthy performances in a sizeable cast were those of tenor Bray Wilkins (alternating with John Kaneklides) as Villiers, Duke of Buckingham; tenor Raùl Melo (alternating with Neal Harrelson) as Kynaston’s antagonist, Sir Charles Sedley; tenor Marc Schreiner (alternating with Nicholas Simpson) as the wry and offhand monarch, King Charles; soprano Sharin Apostolou (alternating with Angela Mannino) as legendary adventuress and royal paramour Nell Gwynn; baritone Ron Loyd (alternating with bass-baritone Matthew Curran) as actor-manager Thomas Betterton; and the redoubtable mezzo-soprano Jane Shaulis (who sang in all four performances) as the bawdy Mistress Revels.
Directed by LOTNY’s artistic director Philip Shneidman; conducted by its music director, Richard Cordova; and with sets by Neil Patel and Cate McCrea; costumes by Lara de Bruijn; and lighting by Nick Solyom, the production was attractive, evocative, compact and clever throughout.
The libretto was written, of course, by the composer himself (as is true of all Floyd’s works), based on a play and screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher (both in turn based on historical fact).
And while Prince of Players might waggishly be called Floyd’s “crowning” work, none should bet too readily on its being his last
It was a pleasure to speak to this cultivated gentlemen of plush, baritonal Southern inflections during his recent visit to New York for Prince of Players, and hear him reflect on subjects ranging from the American opera scene he has influenced, to colleagues fondly remembered; from his creative process and commitment to writing both words and music, to a certain subterfuge in which he engaged during the composition of his next major opera after Susannah – an adaptation of Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
But we began with Floyd’s opinion of a new soubriquet proposed by this writer for him. Here are highlights from our recent audience with Carlisle Floyd.
CHARLES GEYER: Mr. Floyd … or perhaps I should call you Doctor Floyd?
CARLISLE FLOYD: No, no, you call my Carlisle!
CG: Thank you. But it occurred to me that there’s something else I might appropriately call you. You’ve been so prolific a writer of American opera for such a remarkable number of years, might one not dub you “The American Verdi”?
CF: Oh, I think that’s much too pretentious!
CG: But isn’t it somewhat apt? To have written so much, in so native an idiom, with material of such varied settings, sources and tones, and over so many decades. That seems very Verdi-like to me. Plus, Verdi’s operas span about 51 years, whereas you – if we date from Susannah – have been writing for somewhat over 60 years.
CF: Well, I’ve never added it up. But that’s probably right. I certainly see that we both had long careers.
CG: What attracts you to any given subject, and makes you think, yes, this should be treated operatically?
CF: Well, it has to have the necessary requirements of a libretto. Adequate occasions for arias, for set pieces, and something that accommodates the setting of music. A predominance of action – the last thing you want is talk for the sake of talk. The presence of crisis – an emotional atmosphere that’s very heightened, in many cases very feverish, to support what music does when added to the text. Otherwise it will make something seem melodramatic, or else insufficiently justified, and it won’t work as an opera.
CG: And speaking of librettos, you’ve always written your own, haven’t you? In that sense, maybe I should call you the “American Wagner”!
CF: [laughs] Well, I don’t claim to be Wagner, but I certainly claim to have done all my own librettos. I’ve been approached [to set librettos written by others], but no. I went through creative writing in college, so the idea of writing was not particularly forbidding to me. It seemed to come very naturally, because it was a kind of second major in college. And I certainly felt like the more I did it, the more I knew about it – which I think has turned out to be the case. I would hope so, after all the experience I’ve had! And it would be very difficult to collaborate, I think, with a person who didn’t have the same kind of background.
CG: What about themes in your operas? Do you perceive there being some consistency of themes or core ideas toward which you gravitate?
CF: I would say one theme that seems to re-occur is the misunderstood individual in the face of an uncomprehending society.
CG: Yes, I can see that in Prince of Players. No one else in the opera seems to be sensitive to the trauma Kynaston suffers when his art and his livelihood are taken away from him.
CF: That’s right.
CG: And there’s an element of feminism projected in the wisdom that the character of Peg Hughes brings to the stage, and to the art of acting. Would you say you are a feminist as an opera composer?
CF: Oh, yes! I started off with that [in Susannah]. And I don’t think it’s just happenstance with Verdi that so many of his operas have strong, strong female characters.
CG: Ah, ha! So you’re warming to the “American Verdi” idea, eh?
CF: [laughs] Well, I would be very complimented.
CG: While we’re on the subject, it seems like Verdi found the elements of libretto-worthiness you speak about in Shakespeare, three of whose plays he adapted. You have major Shakespeare scenes in Prince of Players – it begins and ends with the climax from Othello, and there’s material from King Lear. Have you ever thought about adapting Shakespeare directly, as Verdi did?
CF: Never! He had more courage than I do.
CG: Even Verdi backed off the challenge of adapting King Lear.
CF: I think – in fact I’m sure – he knew what he was doing!
CG: Susannah was noted, among other things, for its use of American folk-like melodies. What was your compositional approach to Prince of Players?
CF: You know what they say about an opera composer: “To do it successfully, you can’t be mad at anybody.” I think you use whatever you’re called upon to use. In this case, I thought it was important to insert some absolutely original baroque or earlier sounds. I did some revision on it [for this New York premiere]. Initially, for some reason that I can’t right now resurrect, I thought that it would be a chamber opera. But I was persuaded to see it for what it was by my friend David Gockley [former general director of both Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera]. He said, “This is by no means a chamber opera.” I discovered in Houston that the orchestration as I had done it for chamber style was just too thin. [The opera first played in chamber format at Houston Grand Opera in May of 2016.]
CG: Let’s go back to your breakout opera, Susannah – when you wrote it, did you have a prospect for production in mind?
CF: I wrote it for the sake of writing it, and with a strong hope that it would be produced.
CG: Which happened through the instrumentality of soprano Phyllis Curtin?
CF: That was very definitely the case.
CG: How did that come about? I guess you somehow got an introduction, and you performed the entire opera for her at the piano, is that right?
CF: I performed what she wanted to hear, and believe it or not, that was only the two arias. That was in Aspen, Colorado. I went out there to see her, I told her the general background of the opera verbally, and then told her I was prepared to perform it all for her if she wanted me to. She said she had heard enough, and then the following year we came to New York to peddle the opera and – as you know – City Opera took it on. Wonderful lady.
CG: You’ve had many renowned performers associated with Susannah over the years, such as soprano Renée Fleming.
CF: That’s been a very delightful relationship. She did Susannah first at the Chicago Lyric, then at the Met. She became a real champion, after Phyllis [Curtin] had laid the role down.
CG: Norman Treigle?
CF: He was a marvelous performer – and his Blitch is really one of a kind!
CG: Then there’s tenor Jerry Hadley, who performed Sam in the Grammy-winning 1995 recording. What are your thoughts on Hadley? The music world was so shocked and grief-stricken by his sudden loss in 2007.
CF: I feel exactly the way you speak about it. It was something that was a real shock to those of us who knew him, but didn’t know him well enough, obviously. And one that we’ve never been able to absorb, because he was unique. He was a remarkable personality and performer.
CG: I understand that after Susannah, Phyllis Curtin was also your leading lady in the premiere of your opera version of Wuthering Heights. Is that an opera that has enjoyed a proper life?
CF: No, it hasn’t, and as a matter of fact I’m glad you asked about it! There’s a new recording out of a live performance from the Florentine Opera Company in Milwaukee, and it’s won all kinds of awards. It was my first opera after Susannah, and I think you might be interested in listening to it because it’s very far distant from Susannah in idiom, as you would expect. The folk element is not there; or, if it is, it’s more British than American.
CG: I don’t suppose you could have known it at the time, but you are aware now that composer Bernard Herrmann (most famous for scoring Hitchcock pictures like Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho), was also writing an adaptation of Wuthering Heights at the same time?
CF: Yes, I was aware of it even as I was writing it! I knew he was working on it, but I don’t know that it was performed in his lifetime. [Ed. Note: It wasn’t.] I knew because I had the commission by Santa Fe to do mine. And at [music publishers] Boosey and Hawkes they were very concerned about his finding out, for fear that he would rush to have his produced. So we used an artificial name for it in correspondence! And we got to air mine first, in 1957.
CG: Cunning devils. And speaking of devils – it’s often commented that Susannah, like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, was written in part as a protest against McCarthyism. Is there truth to that?
CF: I think there is, although I was not conscious of it. McCarthyism … was something that I experienced in a collegiate situation, and I certainly came to hate it when I saw the damage it did to people.
CG: Were you aware of composer Robert Ward’s opera adaptation of The Crucible?
CF: Yes, he was a good friend. He was of a different generation – a generation ahead of me.
CG: What is your writing process, and how long does it typically take you to write an opera?
CF: I write consistently. Once I start I just continue daily. I work in the mornings, then I take a break and I come back and work until late afternoon. I don’t compose ahead – though if an idea comes to me that I want to use, I simply write it down on a pad and just wait until the time comes that’s appropriate to use it. I would say that from the beginning of the libretto to the conclusion of the orchestration, I usually allow for about three years.
CG: Was that how long you worked on Prince of Players?
CF: It was close to the average. It may have taken a bit of a shorter time, but it was close.
CG: I see that a two-to-three-year average is borne out by a glance at your chronology of works – except for a rather lengthy hiatus after Willie Stark, and after Cold Sassy Tree. What were you up to during those periods?
CF: Hibernating, I think!
CG: Do you use any of the new computer-based composition or notation systems?
CF: I write longhand. I came along too late to learn the other!
CG: Well, again, Verdi did okay writing longhand, too.
CF: Yes, I think I have some good predecessors in that.
CG: And what about your orchestration process? Are you thinking about how the orchestration will be handled at any given point as you compose?
CF: If you stopped me at any time and asked me, I could give you a pretty good idea of what the orchestration was going to be, but I don’t stop and do it.
CG: And how did you acquire your orchestration skills? I imagine they have evolved, and that it was something you were less familiar with when you started out?
CF: Oh, yes. I was a pianist. I had [orchestration]in college, but it was limited. I think to study it successfully, it’s better to do it with someone who’s very gifted at it, who could suggest colors, suggest registers, from personal experience. It doesn’t take long to learn the ranges of all the instruments, though that’s of course the prerequisite. I think the best way to learn it is to do it. And open your ears to it. People ask “where did you learn to orchestrate?” and the answer is simply “listening.” And then if you have someone whose orchestration you very much admire, such as Benjamin Britten, who is a past-master at it, you can certainly learn from seeing what his solutions to problems were. And how he combined instruments – I think that’s what he did most successfully, his very original combinations of instruments.
CG: There are some interesting combinations and colors in the sound of Prince of Players.
CF: I’m fairly pleased with the orchestration.
CG: Carlisle, where do you live these days? And what are your feelings about New York City, now that you’re back here for this premiere?
CF: I live in Tallahassee, Florida. I lived in Houston for twenty years and thoroughly enjoyed my life there, but then my wife wanted to return to Tallahassee where I’d begun my collegiate teaching career. I was here [in New York]a lot when I was in my youth, and have been over the years, but I find it a place that’s too hectic for me now.
CG: Finally, what are you working on currently?
CF: I’m not working on anything now. I became 90 years old last summer. I’m very healthy thank goodness, but this one [Prince of Players] was viewed as my last one.
CG: By whom?
CF: By me! This was material that I enjoyed working on and there were things that I wanted to do with it that I hope I succeeded in. But I’m not saying I won’t ever do it again. I’m not going to say never!
CG: So many of us are delighted to hear that. Thank you, sir, and God bless.
The little OPERA company of ny celebrated Carlisle Floyd with a program entitled Floydiana, in 2016, comprising two Floyd works – Slow Dusk and Markheim – and followed with this New York premiere of Prince of Players. The Paley Center for Media in NYC recently presented a special screening of the filmed version of the 1981 Houston Grand Opera production of Floyd’s Willie Stark, directed by Hal Prince and starring baritone Timothy Nolen in the title role. Floyd has enjoyed a special relationship with the Houston Grand Opera, where he co-founded the HGO Studio in 1977. Floyd’s works are regularly performed throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe.