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Carlisle Floyd Gentle Giant Of American Opera Dead At 95

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Daniel Tchetchik - Used with permission
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Carlisle Floyd

The man widely considered “The Father of Modern American Opera” died in his Tallahassee home September 30 at the age of 95. Carlisle Floyd’s many musical accomplishments were celebrated by colleagues and contemporaries who also remembered him as an uncommonly modest and kindhearted human being.

In 2013, Thomas Holliday released his official biography of Carlisle Floyd entitled “Falling Up.” Shortly thereafter, the subject of the book agreed to speak about it and showed up at WFSU for a recorded interview. And although he was flattered by the attention, Floyd still seemed a bit perplexed at what all the fuss was about.

“I mean, I hear about it, and I see evidence of it. I’m very touched by it, but it certainly has an air of unreality to it, because I’m still Carlisle,” he chuckled.

But under this soft spoke, self-effacing facade was a snarling revolutionary whose first operas were simply too much for the prim and proper stages of Florida State University, which Floyd joined as a piano professor in 1947. Eight years later in 1955, his third work - “Susannah” - would rearrange the tectonic plates of the opera world. But even then, Floyd said he was just doing what came naturally.

“When I wrote ‘Susannah,’ I did it with such total confidence. Misplaced, but I was only 28 years old. I had nothing to lose, but it’s the confidence that you have in your 20s: ‘Yeah, I can do that! Sure, what’s hard about that?’”

Floyd’s creative tsunami would continue with “Wuthering Heights,””Pilgrimage,’’”The Passion of Jonathan Wade” and more, followed by “Of Mice and Men” based on John Steinbeck’s epic novel, in 1970.

“And I had known ‘Of Mice and Men’ along with ‘Susannah’ and I thought they were extraordinary in the way that they took both the legacy of the past and certain very modern musical techniques and applied them to unmistakably American stories in a way that seemed both natural and fresh,” said New York University Professor Mark Adamo, also an operatic composer and librettist. He was one of many whose professional and personal lives were touched by Carlisle Floyd.

“So it was partly on Carlisle’s endorsement that ‘Little Women’ went to Houston Grand Opera and started my career,” Adamo recalled. “He was also my first and best critic. Of the libretto, there’s one major aria for the leading lady that would not have been in the score had it not been for Carlisle.”

Floyd did leave Florida State University and Tallahassee for a time to co-found the Houston Opera Studio in 1976 with David Gockley.

“The Bicentennial was looming at that point and my thought was to commission an opera from Carlisle as an observance of the Bicentennial,” Gockley explained.

That work was entitled, “Bilby’s Doll.” And although the bulk of Floyd’s works were so distinctly American in their subject matter and sensibilities, famed international opera director Michael Gieleta applauded their universal resonance.

“Carlisle was a world-class composer and his contributions to the operatic genre means as much in Europe as it means in the United States.”

And although Floyd might downplay his own contribution, even he had to admit during that 2013 radio interview that his work helped push the boundaries of opera.

“It’s a much healthier climate for composers now,” he mused. “Much more, because much more is accepted as being okay, whatever your idiom is.”

That artistic freedom in the pursuit of authenticity was much appreciated by fellow operatic composers, like Mark Adamo.

“Any music can work if it is working to make the character sound like the way we live now. I think that’s been a great and enduring legacy of his and I’m very grateful for it.”

Floyd’s last work, which he acknowledged came with an uncharacteristic degree of difficulty, was 2016’s “Prince of Players.” The decline of his health accelerated after that. Yet, for all his earth-shaking accomplishments and his almost single-handed creation of what is modern American opera, Carlisle Floyd was first and foremost a truly gentle man. As Michael Gieleta remembered.

“He never took advantage of his iconic position and he carried it with such humanity. What an extraordinary person and how lucky we are to have known him.”

“Well that would be very, very nice and heartening to think that was true. I hope I’ve managed to contribute something.”

We thought Carlisle Floyd, this great composer and great human being, would appreciate having the last word.