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Arts and Entertainment Tuesday, Mar. 19, 2013 9 years ago

An interview with American opera composer Carlisle Floyd

by: Greg Bortnichak

March 4, 2013: I am navigating a labyrinth of hallways in the hotel where American operatic composer Carlisle Floyd is staying for the week. He is here to promote the Sarasota Opera's new production of his adaption of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men---an opera that, over the last 40 years, has proven to be one of a handful of classic operas to emerge from the last century. His assistant and niece, a fantastically hospitable and quick-witted woman named Jane (she goes by Janie, affectionately), tells me an anecdote in the elevator: A few years back when she was leading young journalists just like myself to meet with (at that time) Senator Barack Obama, it was very important that they followed her closely. If they didn't, secret service would shoot to kill. We have a laugh, and my vague awareness that I am about to step in to the most important interview of my career moves into sharpest relief.

For those who are unfamiliar with Carlisle Floyd's legacy, he is the undisputed Father of American Opera. With a career that spans over 60 years, he is an artist of incomparable influence and honors, including a National Medal of Arts from the White House in 2004, an honoree for lifetime achievement in opera from the National Endowment of The Arts, an inductee into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the list goes on, and on, and on ... When he began composing opera, there were three opera companies in the whole country that would stage contemporary American opera; now there over a hundred, and several of his operas have become standard repertoire for not only leading opera companies in the U.S., but throughout Europe as well. Born in 1926 in South Carolina, Carlisle Floyd is an 86-year-old living legend who has not lost one bit of that classic Southern charm.


Greg Bortnichak: Mr. Floyd, I understand that before you became a composer, you had aspirations to become a painter. Subsequently, you have handled both the music and the libretti for your works. Could you give us any insight into how being versed in the graphic and language arts helps to inform your composition style?Carlisle Floyd: In 25 words or less, huh? (chuckles) No, I would just say, as I said a couple times yesterday---people ask me "how did I get in to opera?" and for many years I was pretty baffled by it too. It certainly wasn't because of any parental heritage or anything like that, but I think it was just a combination of all of my interests that met in opera ... I started out drawing, so everybody thought throughout high school that I would go on to painting, but it began to wane in high school. But I also wrote---I was the editor of the school paper and all the things like that, so I felt very comfortable writing and I always had a very high regard for writing. Writing and good literature attracted me from the very beginning. And then I won a scholarship in piano, which determined really which way I was going, and then all my energies were applied towards becoming a first-class pianist ... which I did until my late 20s. And then I did Susannah and never got back to the piano (we all laugh together) in the same way. So I think that being drawn to opera or music-drama or however you want to term it, was just a way of combining all of my interests into one. And it still is. I'm never happier then when I'm working in the theater with the director, with the conductor, with the set designer, with the costumer ... So I think all my interests were met in opera

GB: Do you ever still paint?

CF: No. I keep thinking that when I get old, I'm going to take that up again.

GB: You're probably too busy doing interviews like this, I imagine (we all laugh again). In your 1955 opera, Susannah, you explore themes of false condemnation and accusation being paramount to guilt. Keeping in mind that you composed Susannah during the McCarthy era, those themes seem to be very timely, and pointed with a focus on contemporary American social issues. Of Mice and Men is interesting because the novella is poised in a very specific moment of America's cultural history, yet John Steinbeck requested that you do not reference the 1930s in your operatic interpretation. How did this impact your re-telling of the story, and did it create an opportunity for you to explore the thematic elements of the narrative in new, and perhaps broader ways than the novel? Did the social climate of the late 1960s factor in at all into your re-imagining of the story?

CF: Hmm ... I don't think so. This is the question I get most frequently asked: "Was this (Susannah) in response to the McCarthy era?" And I'm very quick to say, which is honest, that I certainly didn't do it consciously. But at the same time, I lived through that period, which was the darkest period that I've ever lived through in my life, especially in Florida because we had the Jones Committee in Florida, which was out for two things: communists and homosexuals. And equally energetic efforts were made, and a lot of false accusations were made, and I had students who were involved in that, who became involved inadvertently---who had no idea what they were even being accused of, and that really enraged me. One very fine student in particular who was probably my best student at the time was accused of being a lesbian, and she was pulled out into the Dean of Women's office, and she had to find out what they were talking about, she was that naïve. And she still, as a matter of fact, mentions it to me. Because, I think, there was a good deal of trauma in that. And of course, people that I knew were evicted from the university, and even friends; professors. So it was a very bad time to live through, and I felt that it was very wrong and that certainly accusations should not be tantamount to guilt, and so forth, and that it represented a completely monolithic opinion which existed because of fear---fear of being accused and tarred by the same brush, but there was no recourse about it, and that's what was most fascistic about it.

I was a very young professor at the time, but we had to sign documents that we were not, and we would never become communists, and we were all irked at having to do that but we had to do it to save our jobs. Things like that, I think, informed Susannah ... so that aspect of it was never difficult for me to deal with in the opera. When you take what happened in Susannah, it's very close to that: It's a monolithic opinion that everyone is afraid  to challenge in any way because of fear of being in league or in guilt of the same accusation. This is something I get asked a lot in Europe about the closeness in theme to the McCartthy period, and I give them the same answer I've given you: It was not something I set out to do; I did not set to write a polemic. But I felt that if a strong moral message came through the drama, then all the better. And unfortunately we still have a problem with this. Not as much as we did in those days, but there are still those elements of society that I find very disturbing. Does that answer your question adequately?

GB: Definitely. There was something else that came to mind too. I'm curious to know, when you and John Steinbeck were in correspondence ...

CF: We worked through our agents, so he would send me messages back and forth that way.

GB: I see ... When you were working on Of Mice and Men, is it true that he asked you not to reference the 1930s?

CF: Yes he did. And it really surprised me---that's the one thing I hadn't figured. I thought he going to take issue with the fact that I eliminated the character of Crooks in the book, which I did because I thought it was the right decision and I wanted to focus on the characters of George and Lennie. I wanted the focus to be on them exclusively. Also, the character of Crooks was not a very pleasant guy and I had no dramatic use for him, but he [John Steinbeck] did not object to that in the least. He did not want Of Mice and Men pinned down to a social message. Later I had the good fortune of going to a performance in New York with Elaine Steinbeck (John's widow) and we talked about this, and she said: "You dramatized what John thought was important in the book." Which was the whole drama of attachment, and the attachment of these two men, however flawed and imperfect it was ... it was still preferable to the isolation of the other ranch hands who simply had no contact with others."

GB: Decisive action is another very prevalent theme in Of Mice and Men (especially considering its shocking ending). It seems appropriately timed that you premiered the work in 1970 and have supported productions of this opera in recent years, while the U.S. has been engaged in the Iraq War, one of its most nebulous ongoing military conflicts since the Vietnam war. Is this mere coincidence? Is there anything you wish to impart on your audience about military and/or cultural conflict through this work?

CF: No. I have my opinions about them, but I haven't dramatized them, no.GB: Of Mice and Men is a work that is unique in a sense because it is most intimately understood by two men: John Steinbeck and yourself. In light of the state of Texas using the character of Lennie Small as a benchmark to decide legal mental retardation in criminal trials (i.e., the "Lennie Small criteria"), do you view Lennie as a character that is afflicted by a cognitive handicap, or do you view him, as Michael Hendrick (playing Lennie in Sarasota Opera's 2013 production) put it, as a "simple" or "childlike" man who has the capability of overcoming his defficiencies through learning and love? In short, is Lennie sick, or is he just naive?

CF: I think he is impaired. I think he has the mental capacity of about a six-year-old. And one of the first things I had to do after I had done the libretto and started composing was to decide how to treat him musically ... I've seen him played as a slack-jawed idiot, and I very much resented that. I don't think that's the character. I think you have to make it understandable in the first scene why George spends his life with Lennie. Lennie must have some appeal just as a human being, howvever limited. And I think that's the appeal of a child. And when I first started doing the music, I felt, how do I treat somebody who is weak-minded? But then I thought in the book he keeps saying he is just a big kid, in the book, and that pointed me towards writing music that sounded like a child, that suggested a child or someone very innocent. And so his aria in the first scene is my big chance to win the audience for Lennie right from the begginning because he explains what he loves ... and George asks the perfectly obvious question of, "Why do you want a dead mouse?" and he is very put off by this, but obviously, not Lennie.

GB: Isolation is another theme that is widely present in Of Mice and Men. I discussed with Michael Hendrick and Sean Anderson the topic of technology, namely mobile phones and how, as Michael put it, "People tend to be always in their own screens, not interacting with others, and that creates a sense of loneliness." You must have contemplated isolation deeply while completing this work. Are we any more or less isolated today then we were in the late 1960s?

CF: (Long pause ... wistful sigh) My first feeling was that we are less isolated now. I think because of the '60s and just the things that we have seen ... well like the whole gay thing [with the Jones Committee], for instance. For one, that certainly is a gesture against isolationism and of inclusion with the advances in that, and certainly in terms of the race situation we've come a huge way. Because stigma means isolation of sorts, there is no getting around that. And I think as much as we've come in that direction, I think that we've come a ways in eradicating or at least minimizing the things that do isolate people.

I hope that's true at least (chuckles).GB: What about Sean's observation about how technology is impacting the way people interact on a large scale?

CF: Well, I think that can be a danger, but as long as people use the social media to contact each other and establish fairly personal relationships, I think that's good. If that means you can't do that face-to-face, then that's questionable.

GB: How about you, Carlisle? I see you have an iPad, but do you use a mobile device like a smartphone as well?

CF: I couldn't do the thumbs!

We take a break to order some sandwiches and discuss the Boy Scouts. Mr. Floyd has ham and Swiss.

GB: Perhaps isolation is a universal human scourge, one that we can't avoid. What insight into loneliness do you hope to impart to your audience in Of Mice and Men? Have you had any personal revelations about loneliness with your experience composing Of Mice and Men?

CF: My only experience, and it's very limited---I had a very social life, thank goodness ... but as a child, my interests were different. So I did everything every other young boy growing up does, I played sports and all of that ... the thing of it was that I was interested in music and drawing and movies and theater and all those in addition to that, so my friends didn't share those things growing up, and I had some sense of the fact of being apart in that respect. It was all taken care of when I went to college and found people who had my interests, and that was ... great. And always has been since. But that's about the only experience I can think of because I had a very close family, and a sister, who is coming down [for the premiere of Of Mice and Men in Sarasota], who is 13 months younger and we've been very close all our lives.

Now what was the first part of your question? I don't remember ...

GB: Are you making a statement about loneliness that you wish to impart on the audience through this work?

CF: Yes I am. For George, he has a very big aria, which is the heart of the opera at the opening of the second act, when Slim tells him not to have any illusions about having a home of their own, and he is very discouraging about this ... and he says I've never seen a ranch hand do it---they usually die alone. And George says: "I won't settle for that kind of life. Lennie and I have each other. You lonesome guys, you don't have anyone in your life." And that's demonstrated most graphically in the scene after the murder of the old dog at the end of Act One just before the curtain ... The ranch hands have all been for the murder of the old dog, and get into the fray of blood lust, I guess you could say, and yet when the actual shot comes, they each go separately to their bunks---they won't look at each other. So that there is no way of communicating something that is deep as grief or guilt in this particular case. And in the first staging, Frank Pizarro did it just beautifully. The light went down and the men just went across [the stage]. It was like a dance almost. They averted their gaze from eachother and just sung the ballad, and that was the most prominent allocation of loneliness in the opera. And it was planted there for a reason---they had been all  carrying on, rah-rah-ing, being jovial, but when something really serious and something they could really talk about comes up they could not talk. ... So you know that all of this false-heartedness has its very severe limits in terms of any kind of closeness or just response to each other---serious response.

I'm enjoying this very much ...

GB: I'm glad! It makes me very happy to hear that, Carlisle. Okay, one last conceptual question, and then we'll move into one or two fun ones ...

So much of this story hinges on concepts of oppression and freedom, or more specifically, the dream of being free. What in life has helped you to achieve feelings of freedom, and what has hindered them?

CF: I honestly don't think I've ever felt not free. Except as a child, when you're obeying your parents, and they ... what's the expression? Come down on you. Saying you can't do this, you can't do that. I don't think I've ... No, I gave you the right answer. I was just thinking of when I wanted to take piano lessons, and I knew I was going to get a fair amount of ribbing for it, but I wanted to take piano lessons, so I did it. I would walk to my piano lessons across the ball field where I played with my friends, and I got away with a lot. I think it was because I was into just about everything else ... But I had to have had a sense, and I credit my parents with this, to go after what you like or what you feel strongly about. It never occurred to me that if I got ribbing that that would deter me---I wanted something more important than baseball for me. Although I played basketball in high school on the team and I played tennis, as a friend of mine used to say, "frequently, if not well," until I ruptured my knee. So sports were always a part of my life, really. They still are.

GB: I think that's very unique. I tend to think that it is commonplace now in our society for young adults to feel backed into spending a lot of time doing things they don't see the greater good in.

CF: Oh, I think I was very fortunate. Always ... and still am. At my age, to come to Sarasota to see an opera, that is very good fortune!

GB: Mr. Floyd, as an artist with such enduring influence and unique character, you are an inspiration to many. But what inspires you? Are there any contemporary artists, authors, composers, etc., that you find exciticing at the moment, or you feel have opened your eyes in ways that are worth mentioning?

CF: I think what I'm most grateful for at this point in my life, is not only the longevity of my career, but the fact that there are two young composers in particular---Jake Heggie and Mark Adamo---who I feel very close to. I've gotten to know Jake very well, and Mark almost as well, and have worked with them a little, you know, but ... they are very generous to me, saying I was something of a model to them. That's the most gratification you can get ... I'm not sure they're the only ones, but Mark calls me "The Father Of Us All." And no other title makes me any prouder than that. I would say that is the most the most gratifying thing in my life right now. When I began writing my operas, there was no American opera, and there were very few American opera companies, and just to see what has happened in my lifetime is just ... extraordinary.

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