Composer  Carlisle  Floyd

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


I had spoken briefly with Carlisle Floyd a few times as we tried to arrange an appointment for an interview.  Finally we found a convenient hour just five weeks before his sixty-fifth birthday. 

Here is what was said on the telephone that afternoon in 1991 . . . . . . . . .

Carlisle Floyd:   
I’m sorry to have been so delinquent in getting back to you, but my life has not been my own for the last three years, especially the last eighteen months.  This new opera of mine is having four productions.

Bruce Duffie:    Is it good when an opera is produced in more than one place at the same time, or approximately the same time?

CF:    It’s certainly the wave of the future
joint or co-productions.  This is the first time this has ever happened to me with a new opera.  It certainly is very exciting, and I’m very, very happy with the outcome of working with four companies. 

BD:    What is the name of this opera?

CF:    The Passion of Jonathan Wade.   It’s a new version of the opera I wrote in 1962.  By new, I mean it’s not just revised; it’s very much overhauled and rewritten.

BD:    What happens when someone comes to you and says, “I liked the old version better.”?

CF:    Well, that’s too bad.  [Both laugh]  I don’t, or I wouldn’t have spent two to three years preparing this one.

BD:    The four different productions — are they four different stage sets, or did the stage set travel from place to place?

CF:    The co-producers are all using the same production and much of the same cast.

BD:    And same director?

CF:    I’m staging it everywhere, yes.  It’s opening in Houston in January, then we’re on to Miami in March and San Diego in April, and we’ll finally be seen in Seattle next November.  So we’re covering the continent.

BD:    How have the audience reactions been to your works, and are they similar or different from city to city?

CF:    Consistently enthusiastic from city to city.  Of course, all these cities have very different population mixes, so we didn’t know what to expect, but they have been remarkably enthusiastic everywhere, thank goodness.

floydBD:    What do you expect of the audience that comes to see one of your operas, or hear one of your symphonic works?

CF:    I really am primarily an operatic composer.  I’ve done a few pieces for orchestra, but very few.  I expect the audience to be engrossed in the stage action, and to have a total theatrical experience in which one element does not dominate — either the music or the drama or the production itself.  The concept of total theater in which all the parts are fused is a very exciting one, and all too rarely realized.

BD:    Are all the parts fused on the page, or do all the parts only fuse when you bring it to the stage?

CF:    Only when you see it on the stage.  It’s certainly conceived with that in mind, however.

BD:    You write all your own libretti?

CF:    That’s right.

BD:    So you’re really a one-man circus!

CF:    Well, in this case, I was, yes.  I’ve staged my own operas for the last thirty years, but I’ve never staged a world premiere before.  I was asked by David Gockley [of the Houston Opera] and Robert Heuer [of the Miami Opera], who were the co-commissioners of this new version, to do the staging of this one, so I accepted.  I figured I may as well do it from the beginning, according to my own vision of the piece.  We had two magnificent designers that they gave me to work with
Gunther Schneider-Siemssen did the sets and Allen Charles Klein did the costumes.  It’s a very large-scaled opera, and I must say that the production is quite spectacular. 

BD:    When you conceive the idea, does it come to you as one piece or do you think of it in smaller sections and put together?

CF:    Oh, no, no, no — one piece.  You have to have a dramatic through-line in everything you do for a piece to have any kind of organic quality. 

BD:    Then as you’re writing the words, do you have ideas of the music that’s going along?

CF:    No, no. 

BD:    So you’re writing a libretto which you then set?

CF:    Yes, but I know what I have to supply myself with as a composer.  I’m just not writing a libretto in thin air.  It’s a very specialized discipline, and takes a great deal of experience and probing to come up with what goes into the making of the libretto.  I think probably the reason for the failure of most contemporary operas is poor libretti. 

BD:    Do you, the composer, ever have fights with you, the librettist?

CF:    Yup, from time to time.  The composer usually wins, but not always. 

BD:    So there are some times when the dramatist in you insists and gets his way?

CF:    Oh, absolutely.  But frequently music makes its own demands.  It’s very difficult to eliminate sections that you’re particularly fond of musically because they are probably expendable dramatically.  That’s the most difficult part of it. 

BD:    Do you then save those little bits of music and use them elsewhere?

CF:    No, not usually.  Not unless I do another version of the same opera.

BD:    Do you usually go back and revise scores, or do they generally stand as they are finally put on the stage?

CF:    I revise endlessly before I first do it.  Then I revise in rehearsals and subsequently.  Usually I don’t really leave a work alone until it goes in the publication.  Then I figure that’s it.  You have to finally let it go.  So although this work was revised and rewritten and then further revised after I saw it in lab productions, just to get as perfect a work as I could come up with I still made a number of changes and cuts in the actual rehearsal period. 

BD:    Are the revisions mostly cuts rather than additions?

CF:    Yes, cuts and elisions.  Then, interestingly enough I suppose, I restored some of the cuts in later performances, even in San Diego. 

BD:    As you were getting used to the work?

CF:    I just missed certain things that I had cut.  In the heat of getting something prepared for its first performance, you just don’t have the perspective that you have later, so you tend to overcut
— or at least I do.  So what happened in this case was I restored maybe three or four minutes.

BD:    So it’s not major things?

CF:    No, no. 

BD:    Have you ever thought about writing a libretto for someone else’s music?

CF:    Not seriously.  I’ve been asked to write librettos for other composers by them, but I’ve never done it.  It would be very difficult.  If I came out with something that intrigued me dramatically, I’d want to do it myself.

BD:    So then really you are the musician first, and you’re using the wordsmith’s talents to further that?

CF:    I don’t think I would be very successful, frankly, at writing a libretto that I didn’t feel real sympathy for, myself, and in that case I would want to do it musically. 

BD:    Would you ever object to someone else using one of you librettos that you’ve already set?

CF:    Not particularly, no.  I don’t think it would happen, but I don’t think I would have particular objection to it.  It would be kind of intriguing for me to see what somebody else would do with the same material.  It’s not all that far removed from seeing a different stage production of an opera of mine — different point of view, different choices, different values
which is always fascinating.  Sometimes I don’t particularly like them, and other times I think they’re very insightful. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You say you’re primarily an opera composer.  Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing music for the human voice.

CF:    I just think it’s the most marvelous instrument in the world to write for, and the most difficult.  Very few composers address themselves to what’s involved in writing for the voice.  It has its own discipline.  It’s not like writing for the clarinet or the flute, in which you simply know what sounds good in what range, and the changes that come up from range to range.  The voice is much more intricate than that because each voice type is a world into itself.  So it’s a lifelong study, yet, it’s obviously the primary medium of expression in opera.  Unfortunately, too few contemporary composers simply take the time to really ponder and study what makes something vocal, what is vocally easy and what’s vocally taxing, and why. 

floydBD:    Why do they not take the time?

CF:    It’s just not realizing how difficult it is to write for the voice. 

BD:    You mean they’re satisfied with their substandard material?

CF:    I don’t know that they would consider it substandard.  They’re still thinking instrumentally in many cases.  Writing for the voice is probably a very special gift, although a great deal of the craft of it can be learned, such as where the passaggio is for each vocal type, and the scoring that you can use for a heavier spinto soprano as opposed to just a lyric soprano, and just on and on.  I don’t think it’s deliberately and willful ignoring all the intricacies of writing for the voice; I think it’s simply not being aware of them until they begin to get complaints from singers. 

BD:    It seems like most composers ignore complaints from singers. 

CF:    Well, they do so at their own peril because there is a great deal to learn from working with singers. 

BD:    They know their instruments better?

CF:    Yes, and they know what it takes to sing well.  Unless you’re a singer yourself, there are things they know that the voice and can do, and where it can do it, that you just know! 

BD:    You started out as a pianist.  When did you gravitate to the voice?

CF:    I started out writing songs when I was eighteen.  So I always wrote for the voice, but I think primarily I always liked the idea of fusing words and music.  I was always drawn to that. 

BD:    Throughout your career you have steadfastly stayed with a melodic, tuneful, very accessible kind of sound.  Does it please you to find that this is finally coming back into vogue?

CF:    Yes, because in my case, after much pondering it seems to me absolutely to make no sense to write in a musical idiom that an audience is just not able to respond to at any level.  That doesn’t mean pandering to audiences’ tastes.  First of all, you have to write what you honestly want to hear, but it’s like speaking to people in a foreign language, otherwise.  You have to have some connection, somewhere. 

BD:    There’s no way of making some kind of a musical supertitle?

CF:    No, I’m afraid not, although it certainly is a boon for the librettist. 

BD:    Your words obviously are in English.  Do you use the supertitles anyway?

CF:    We use supertitles in all these productions.

BD:    Are they the exact words, or are they the gist of the words?

CF:    They’re the exact words, but they’re not all of the words. 

BD:    So you have to prune your own libretto?

CF:    I don’t do it.  Someone else does it.

BD:    Are you pleased with how it looks?

floydCF:    Yup, very much so.  To me, it doesn’t for one minute relax the necessity for trying to have every word understood on the part of the singers and the conductor as well as the composer, but, it’s simply there.  We call it a safety net.  In case you miss a line, it’s up there, but if you are forced to read the supertitles constantly, you’re bound to be distanced emotionally from the stage, and that always concerns me.

BD:    It seems like the titles appear just before the words are sung, like a prompter. 

CF:    Actually they have to be timed very, very delicately.  It’s really an art form in itself so that you don’t give away a crucial line too soon in the supertitles, nor too late.  It takes very, very delicate timing. 

BD:    Are we going to come up with a new specialty, the Maestro of Titles?

CF:    It’s very possible.  You can certainly damage what’s happening on the stage, or be a great enabler for what’s happening on the stage. 

BD:    Staying with this idea for a moment, when your operas are produced in Europe, would you rather they be translated...

CF:    Oh, absolutely.

BD:    ...into their language, rather than in English with supertitles?

CF:    I would prefer that they be in the language of the audience, with supertitles in that language. 

BD:    So you want a double barreled dose? 

CF:    I want a guarantee that the audience is fully aware of what’s going on on the stage.  I think it’s the greatest boon to opera in this country since its beginning, because it’s always been done in the original language
not always, but so frequently in this countryand many people felt that they weren’t getting the opera unless they were getting it in a foreign language, which is of course, nonsense.  It was always done in the language of the audience in Europe until the Second World War. 

BD:    Do you feel that the use of the supertitles here in America is going to mean the death of European opera in English?

CF:    It could, but I don’t think that’s a great loss as long as you have the surtitles. 

BD:    So for the European operas, you don’t mind them being in Italian, French, or German with the supertitles?

CF:    No, just as long as the surtitles are there.

BD:    But you want your operas done in their languages and translated?

CF:    I would prefer that, yes.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  It seems like you’re riding both sides of the fence on that one.

CF:    I think it would be great, if we had wonderful translations, to see all of our operas done in English by performers who make a real point of singing well in English.  I certainly am for translations, but if this is the best compromise we can make in this country — and it seems to be — then I’m for it.  The big controversy now is the idea of doing operas in English and still using supertitles, but that one’s being laid to rest with all these various companies now, when they do English works, also having supertitles.  They’re just simply there in case one misses a line. 

BD:    So it’s an aid, rather than part of the performance?

CF:    Oh, absolutely!  If it becomes part of the performance, then I have real aesthetic problems with it because then you lose the emotional absorption with what’s happening on the stage, if it becomes a distraction rather than an enhancement.  Then I think we’re in trouble.

BD:    What comes to mind immediately, then, are the productions by Peter Sellars where he not only gives you the translation, but also stage directions and asides and philosophy.

CF:    I would not favor that simply because that forces you to distance yourself intellectually from the stage.  It’s just a different concept of theater.   I am personally only interested in absorbing an audience emotionally in what’s happening on the stage, and having them be pulled into the stage.  Anything that forces you to intellectualize to that extent does just the opposite of that.  It depends on the piece, of course.

BD:    Would you be in favor of placing the supertitles near the bottom of the stage rather than above it, to look very much like a television production with the titles in the screen?  That way the audience is looking through the words and seeing the stage picture and the words together.

CF:    No, I wouldn’t want it to interfere with the stage picture at all.  That would definitely interfere with your feeling that you’re a part of the stage. 

BD:    I’m just trying to find out if the live stage should go even more the way of the television.

CF:    I don’t think so, not for the stage.  The point is that audiences have unequivocally embraced the idea of surtitles.  They have something like a ninety-eight percent favorable response.  Obviously, I think using subtitles in television productions certainly may have paved the way.  People got used to hearing and watching.  Also it’s done the most of anything to demystify opera, so the people realize that what they’re seeing is not all that rarified, but something very human and very universal. 

BD:    Is opera for everyone?

CF:    Ideally it should be for everyone.  I’m not sure that it is because there’s just too great a range of values and theatrical concepts from period to period.  In present day opera houses, for instance, the operas of Mozart seem a great more modern than mid-nineteenth century operas.  But the tastes of the periods are very different.  Our tastes are much closer to those of the eighteenth century.  So when you say, “Should it appeal to everyone?” I can’t say that.  Can you say, “Should all novels appeal to everyone?”  Some people are going to like Sir Walter Scott and some people are going to find Sir Walter Scott impossibly dated.  It’s the same way in opera. 

BD:    But most people would like novels as a form, whether or not they like this particular author or not.  So should the opera, the form, be for everyone?

CF:    Yes, as long as people are properly prepared that they’re seeing a work of a different age with different values and with a different emphasis on credibility. 

BD:    You’re working in what has been developed into really a late nineteenth century form.  Does your work reflect the current age, even though you are put into this old straightjacket?

CF:    Oh, I hope so.  This opera, The Passion of Jonathan Wade, for instance, is set in the reconstruction period, yet I think the values and themes it deals with are timeless.  This is something which I think all good theater should have.  What makes any art form last is the fact that it is not confined to a period, whether or not it does deal with timeless human values. 

BD:    We’ve been dancing around this, so let me ask the question straight out.  What is the purpose of music in society?

CF:    To me, music is the most mysterious and the most highly sophisticated of all the arts, because it’s a direct conduit to the unconscious.  It’s far less explainable than painting, theater, or any other forms of art.  For that reason its great value to human beings is the fact that is does reach us on an unconscious level.  Theater can do something of that, but not the extent that music can
— the same for poetry or painting or whatever. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the productions of your works which you’ve seen?

floydCF:    It depends.  On the whole, yes, but almost always with some reservations.   We have such magnificent singing actors in this country now and for the past two generations.  I’ve been very fortunate in that regard, in having superb realizations of roles. 

BD:    Are you optimistic about the whole future of opera?

CF:    Not particularly.  I think we live in a very curious time of transition.  The production of opera has proliferated beyond anybody’s dreams in this country, but most of the companies hew to the original repertoire and hew to one idea of what opera is.  They are a little timid about exposing their audiences to less familiar works or even twentieth century works, so it’s a curious kind of dichotomy.  We have tremendous amount of operatic artistic ferment, and at the same time it’s increasingly being used to acquaint audiences with works that they don’t know as well as they know Bohème, and Butterfly, and Carmen.  We need to see more and more of that being done, in other words a diverse repertoire such as you have going on right there in Chicago. 

BD:    Besides the Chicago Opera Theater, Lyric has its series called Toward the Twenty-first Century.

CF:    Yes.  Ardis [Krainik, General Director of Lyric Opera of Chicago] for some time now has mixed her repertoire a great deal more than was certainly the case twenty years ago there.  [See my Interview with Ardis Krainik.]  She intends to do more and more of that.  I think that’s very heartening, and it’s happening in more and more companies.  I hope it will continue.  That, to me, is a very healthy sign. 

BD:    Going back to the compositional process, when you’ve got your text to work with and you’re putting the music to the words, are you always controlling where that musical line will go, or are there times when the pencil seems to be drawing your hand upward or downward?

CF:    The pencil doesn’t do it, but the inner ear certainly does.  So much of composition is totally unconscious.  We apply craft and skill after the unconscious has made itself manifest. 

BD:    You go back and touch it up?

CF:    Oh, yes.  Then we go back and start the editing process, but you’re constantly drawing on the inner ear.  That’s the repository of all music, really.  Where those sounds actually come from for a composer
as opposed to a non-composeris endlessly mysterious to us, and probably always will be.  If we had other ways of expressing what music can express, music would no longer exist. 

BD:    [Genuinely surprised]  Really???  Music would die???

CF:    Well, I don’t think it will ever happen, but if we could ever make the process
that access to the unconsciousconscious, then we would have had to replace it simply with something that did the same thing.  So we’d be sort of right back where we started from.  I can tell you, and I’m sure any composer you talk to would tell you, that on occasion after occasion, he has no idea where a musical theme comes from or why it comes when it does, or anything else.  It’s just there.  It is nothing that one summons up by effort of will.

BD:    Do you find the same kinds of things happening when you’re writing text?

CF:    To some extent, but not nearly as much.  You’re dealing with a much more palpable medium when you’re dealing with words than you are with sounds. 

BD:    We were talking about performances, but what about the recordings?  Are you basically pleased with those?

[Note: We went over a list of the works which had been recorded.  At that time (1991), this included The Mystery, a set of Five songs of Motherhood sung by Phyllis Curtin [See my Interview with Phyllis Curtinand The Pilgrimage sung by Norman Treigle, as well as a symphonic overture called In Celebration.  Since that time, several other items have appeared, including complete recordings (both audio and video) of some of the operas.]

CF:    I don’t think they’re ideal recordings in terms of performance, but overall it’s good to have a document of something even if it’s not perfection.  Both the song cycles that you’re speaking of were recorded very quickly with limited amount of rehearsal time.  Of course the ideal is to have something like an opera done while it’s in production, in which everything is very sharp. 

floydBD:    Why can’t more of that be arranged?  Is it just financial considerations?

CF:    Financial, always financial, especially in this country, yes!  You’re dealing with unions all the time. 

BD:    Have some of your works been televised?

CF:    Willie Stark was televised back in ’81 on Great Performances. 

BD:    Do you feel that operas, either your own or by others, work on television?

CF:    Oh, yes.  I felt very strongly about that with the piece of mine.  I’ve seen two of my operas.  University of Washington did an absolutely brilliant production in black and white of a one-act opera of mine, Markheim, which I thought worked beautifully and did things that you could never do on stage.  They really used the medium.  They did it for television with the kind of care and preparation that you probably only have time for in the University station. 

BD:    I see.  Would you ever consider writing something specifically for television, as Menotti did with Labyrinth?  [See my Interviews with Gian Carlo Menotti.]

CF:    No. 

BD:    Why not?

CF:    Because I think the same thing would happen that happened to Labyrinth.  It would be a one-shot deal. 

BD:    [With hopeful optimism]  Even today, in the age of the VCR? 

CF:    Who’s to say?  A good stage piece could be certainly well adapted to TV, but given the amount of time to write an opera that’s involved, a composer would want something that would and could certainly have its life extended beyond a telecast. 

BD:    I assume that you are flooded with commissions.  How do you decide which ones you’ll accept and which ones you’ll turn aside?

CF:    Oh, I’m not flooded.  I don’t know that any of us is really flooded to that extent, because it takes a lot of money to commission a full-length opera.

BD:    Is it safe to say that you have more offers than you accept?

CF:    Well, I’ve been very fortunate.  I’ve had commissions more or less over the last thirty years, but it’s not all that difficult.  Though it has never come down to that, in my case it would depend on the reputation of the company for its production values, and whether it would accept the terms that opera companies have always accepted when I’ve done commissions, of my having pretty much artistic control over it in terms of casting and selection of conductor. 

BD:    Do you feel you, as the creator, are in the best position to have that control?

CF:    Yes, I think so.

BD:    You don’t feel that another set of eyes or another brain on it would help?

CF:    Oh well, you’re going to get that anyway, because any energetic and far-sighted general director is going to have ideas of his own, and they may be better than yours.  Or he may know a thing that you don’t know, something that he has you hear that you are delighted that you heard.  It’s never come down to a tug of war.

BD:    So you want the control, but then you’re completely open to suggestions? 

CF:    Oh, absolutely!  It’s just a matter of safeguarding one’s work so that it doesn’t really fall into inappropriate hands. 

BD:    At least for the first time...

CF:    Yes, because that’s the crucial time. 

BD:    Do you have any kind of control once the work has been launched?

CF:    No.  Well, I have some control to the extent that some general directors will call me for recommendations for singers for certain roles, but no, after the piece is launched it has to have a life of its own.  If it’s stage-worthy and it’s going to have any chance of entering the repertoire, it obviously has to be done more than one way and by more than one person.  It was very interesting in this recent opera, Jonathan Wade, that the major soprano role now was sung by three different sopranos in three places, and will be sung by a fourth in Seattle — all quite different, but all quite legitimate, quite authentic.  To me that’s proof of a role, if it can be done successfully by several people, by a number of people. 

BD:    So you allow your singers ideas and quite a bit of leeway?

CF:    You have to deal with the personalities of the singers, yes.

BD:    Do you ever alter a role just to fit a specific singer with a particular talent?

CF:    No, I wouldn’t.  I’ve never actually written a role for a particular singer, except in one instance, and that was the role of Markheim which I wrote for Norman Treigle.  But other than that, no.   I simply write the role.

BD:    But even Markheim could be taken up by a Treigle-type bass?

CF:    Oh, absolutely!  I would hope so, and it has been.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is composing fun?

floydCF:    Well, I don’t know that it’s fun.  Yes, it can be fun.  It’s very, very taxing.  It takes immense and exhausting concentration, but goes on like almost any other kind of activity.  Unless you are concentrated every minute, nothing happens.  You can practice the piano for an hour or so and have your mind someplace else, it may not be as non-productive, but in composition you have to be there every second or nothing really gets down.  It’s exhilarating when things are going well, and is very trying when things are not.  But I think the first outweighs the second. 

BD:    Do you always have ideas for the piece that
’s on your desk even when you’re in hotel rooms or producing another opera?

CF:    No.  On a number of occasions I have been in the process of staging an older opera while I was working on a new one, but you simply have to switch gears to do that. 

BD:    So it’s not a constant process of working on one piece?

CF:    As long as I’m working on that one piece, yes it is.  I can’t work on two or three pieces, but staging is an altogether different activity.

BD:    It doesn’t confuse you or cause schizophrenia? 

CF:    No, no.  It’s very creative, but it’s an altogether different kind of activity than composing.  I don’t want to do that much of it, so I select that very carefully
whether I want to do the opera again, do I want to work with this particular company, do I feel an affinity for the aims of this particular company, or do I have singers I want to work with?  Many things go into consideration of whether I accept a staging assignment or not. 

BD:    I am very glad you have spent your life writing operas.  The ones I have seen and heard have been wonderful pieces.  And I just want to thank you for being a composer and sticking with it
especially in this style, which has been out of fashion for so long, and yet people have liked it all these years.

CF:    That’s right, exactly.  Old man Verdi knew a great many things, and he said the audience is the final arbiter.  I think he’s right.  Not that one caters or tenders to audience taste, but there had to be a meeting ground there.  First of all, our job is to entertain at a very high level.  And if you don’t do that, I don’t think you’ve done anything. 

BD:    Is there a balance between entertaining and artistic achievement?

CF:    Oh, sure, absolutely.  All great artists find it.  Martha Graham felt very strongly about this, that her first job was to entertain.  It means to absorb an audience, or take an audience outside of itself into your own domain.  That’s what we have to do to create the proper artistic experience for an audience. 

BD:    As you approach your sixty-fifth birthday, are you pleased with where you are?  Are you anywhere close to where you expected to be years ago at this juncture?

CF:    Yes, I think so.  I don’t have a feeling that I wish I had written more.  I wish I had known as much twenty-five years ago about just the craft of writing operas and librettos.  That, unfortunately, just comes only with experience and mistakes.  But other than that, I would have to say yes, I’m satisfied with where I am now.  I feel that in many ways I’m just now learning how to write operas.

BD:    Is the best yet to come?

CF:    I hope it will always be there
the search for more and more of what goes into this very fascinating art form, what makes it work and what keeps it from working.     

BD:    Learning what to do and what not to do?

CF:    That’s right.  I work with young composers and librettists all the time, and that keeps me very sharp.  I just feel we have an obligation to try to pass on what we’ve learned to people who are responsive. 

BD:    Do you like what you see coming out of the pens of young composers?

CF:    It depends on the composers.  Writing for the theater is a very special talent, and you either have theater blood or you don’t.  I must say that when I started out working with composers I didn’t feel that way.  I figured that anyone could write for the stage.  But if a person has real theatrical instincts as a composer, it’s fascinating and exhilarating to work with them. 

BD:    So there are some coming along?

CF:    Yes.  I don’t think there are many, but I don’t think there have ever been many.  It’s not just happenchance [sic] that all of our major operatic composers have been just operatic composers — with the exception of Mozart.  We all know that there’s only one Mozart!

BD:    [Laughs]  That’s true.  And there’s really only one Carlisle Floyd!

CF:    [Laughs]  I hope so, for better or worse.

BD:    I want to thank you for spending some time with me this afternoon.  I’ve learned a lot, and I’m glad we finally got a chance to chat.

CF:    I am, too.  I’m glad that we were able to finally get together and talk at a more leisurely time.  If you had called three months ago, I don’t think we would have been able to have this kind of discussion.  Thank you Mr. Duffie.

Carlisle Floyd is one of the foremost composers and librettists of opera in the United States today. Born in 1926, Floyd earned B.M. and M.M. degrees in piano and composition Syracuse University. He began his teaching career in 1947 at Florida State University, remaining there until 1976, when he accepted the prestigious M. D. Anderson Professorship in the University of Houston. In addition, he is co-founder with David Gockley of the Houston Opera Studio jointly created by the University of Houston and Houston Grand Opera.

Floyd’s operas are regularly performed in the US and Europe. He first achieved national prominence with the New York premiere of his opera, Susannah (1953–54), by the New York City Opera in 1956 after its world premiere at Florida State University in 1955. In 1957 it won the New York Music Critic’s Circle Award and subsequently was chosen to be America’s official operatic entry at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Of Mice and Men (1969) is Floyd’s other most often performed work. In the 1998-99 season alone it was presented by New York City Opera, Utah Opera, San Diego Opera, and Cleveland Opera. Based on the Steinbeck novel, it was commissioned by the Ford Foundation and was given its premiere by the Seattle Opera in 1970.

Floyd’s more recent operas, Bilby’s Doll (1976) and Willie Stark (1981), were both commissioned and produced by the Houston Grand Opera, the latter in association with the Kennedy Center. A televised version of the world premiere production of Willie Stark opened WNET’s Great Performances series on the PBS network in September of 1981. Floyd's latest opera, Cold Sassy Tree (2000) received its premiere at Houston Grand Opera in April 2000. Subsequently, it has been performed by Austin Lyric Opera, Central City Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Opera Carolina, Opera Omaha, San Diego Opera, and Utah Opera.

The composer has also gained increasing attention for his non-operatic works. 1993 saw the New York premiere of Floyd’s orchestral song cycle, Citizen of Paradise (1984), given by the leading mezzo-soprano of the Metropolitan Opera, Suzanne Mentzer. Floyd also completed a large-scale work for chorus, bass-baritone soloist, and orchestra titled A Time to Dance (1993), commissioned by the American Choral Directors Association.

Floyd has been the recipient of a number of honors and awards: a Guggenheim Fellowship (1956); Citation of Merit from the National Association of American Conductors and Composers (1957); the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Nation Award from the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce (1959); the distinguished professor of Florida State University Award (1964); an honorary doctorate from Dickinson College (1983); and the National Opera Institute’s Award for Service to American Opera (1983). He served on the Music Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1974–80 and was the first chairman of the Opera/Musical Theater Panel. Floyd was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001, and in 2004 was awarded the National Medal of Arts in a ceremony at the White House. In 2008, Floyd was one of four honorees—and the only composer—to be included in the inaugural National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors. In 2011, he was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame, an honor reserved for the state’s most-accomplished native sons.

Carlisle Floyd is published exclusively by Boosey & Hawkes.

— August 2012 

Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes. 

© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on May 4, 1991.  Segments were used (with recordings) on WNIB one month later, and again in 1996 and 1999.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.