'Jonathan Wade' Gets New Lease on Life

To write his post-Civil War opera "The Passion of Jonathan Wade," composer Carlisle Floyd had to transcend the Southern nostalgia of his childhood.

"When I grew up in the South, the Civil War was very much alive. I belonged to the Children of the Confederacy, and my grandmother belonged to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. We grew up asking questions like, 'Daddy, if the war were fought now, would the South win?' "

Despite Floyd's determination to achieve historical objectivity, his post-Civil War epic was defeated by critics' mixed reviews at its world premiere in New York in 1962.

The large-scale work, a commission from the New York City Opera, was put back on the Houston-based composer's shelf. Now, after nearly three decades of neglect and two years of thorough revision by the composer, "The Passion of Jonathan Wade" is about to get a new lease on life. Opera companies in four cities will mount the newly revised "Jonathan Wade," starting with its debut Jan. 18 with the Houston Grand Opera.

It will then be performed in Miami, in San Diego (April 13-21) and finally in Seattle.

When Floyd worked on the first version of "Jonathan Wade," he was concerned about showing partiality to either side in the conflict. As his own librettist, of course, he had complete control over dialogue and characterization. But in his recently completed major revision, he went a step further.

"I worked to be absolutely and totally objective," Floyd said. "In the second version of the opera, everyone has his say, even if you don't like the character. I had the libretto read by a psychoanalyst, a marvelous friend who is Cuban--so he would have no ax to grind--to detect any sense of slant in portraying characters from the North."

In a tiny office buried in the San Diego Opera Scenic Shop, Floyd discussed the project of revising his largest opera, a two-year project he has undertaken at Houston Opera Theatre, where he has overseen laboratory performances of his revisions in progress. Floyd was in San Diego last week to consult with the scenic shop staff on the Gunther Schneider-Siemssen set, which the scenic shop will build for use by the four companies that are presenting "The Passion of Jonathan Wade" this spring.

Floyd, a native of South Carolina, is courtly, impeccably attired, well-spoken and every inch a Southern gentleman without a hint of caricature. He made it clear that the Southern "excessive kind of politesse" he recalled from his childhood was something he had always thought foolish.

The 64-year-old composer, best known for his early opera "Susannah" and operatic adaptation of Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," is eager to place his Civil War drama in its proper historical perspective.

"Basically, I tried to show the Civil War as the collision of two entirely different cultures, which is what it came down to. It was the Cavalier culture of the South, which was really more close to the samurai culture in valuing the family and its virtual worship of ancestors, versus the entrepreneurial Yankee ideals.

"I've become more and more aware of this talking to my historian consultant, Dr. Joseph Glatthaar at the University of Houston. He made me aware that this was an inevitable conflict because the value systems of the two sides were so opposed."

It was not a historian, but Floyd's wife, Fay, who suggested the opera's theme to him.

"We were taking a train trip on our way to a performance, when she asked if I had ever thought of doing an opera about a Union officer in the South during the Reconstruction. That was all she said, but it rang a bell with me."

In Floyd's opera, Jonathan Wade is a Union officer who comes to Charleston, S.C., to administer that city in the months immediately after the war. He marries the daughter of a local judge, making both of them outcasts to the embittered Charleston citizenry and to the zealous New Englanders eager to profit from the Reconstruction.

"The character of Wade demonstrates the impossibility of a man of moderation and reasonableness to survive in a climate of extremism. This is, I learned, the Goethian idea of tragedy, where a character is trapped in circumstances that permit no solution."

Floyd's tragedy does not display even a hint of redemption, for which he is not apologetic.

"I don't think we ever learn from those things, unfortunately. What was learned, for example, from Lincoln's assassination, or Kennedy's, for that matter?"

Floyd said the extent of his revisions to his opera are unique.

"The musical score is about 80% new. There were whole scenes I had wanted to recompose from the beginning, and in fact, very little of the score has been left intact. I believe that Verdi changed a single act of his opera 'Simone Boccanegra', but revamping an opera on this scale is without precedent in opera history."

Howard Pollack--a music historian at the University of Houston who has analyzed both versions of the opera--confirmed Floyd's statement.

"He has thoroughly rewritten large parts of the libretto, but the musical revisions are the most extensive. The new version brings more subtlety to the characters, and he took the edge off the stereotype of the typical black mammy," Pollack said.

Floyd's stated goal was to heighten the emotional relationships between his characters. He also admitted that changes of attitudes since 1962 caused him to rewrite both of the opera's female roles, especially, that of Nicey, a black woman in the employ of the Wades.

"I did not want her to come through as Aunt Jemima," Floyd said. "I modeled her on a black woman I know who worked for my sister. I admired tremendously her fiercely independent spirit, which I have tried to impart to Nicey in terms of bringing out her inner strength and intuitive wisdom."

Into one of the opera's final scenes he also introduced an emotionally charged quarrel between Col. Wade and his wife.

"I cannot think of another scene in opera where the lovers turn on each other at the end. Because it is least expected, I hope this will be a most astonishing scene. The couple have lost all of their friends, so they vent their frustration and anger on each other. I felt their relationship would not be completely authentic unless they finally turn on each other."

In his first version of "The Passion of Jonathan Wade," Floyd included in the plot members of the Ku Klux Klan. Because the opera takes place in 1865 and the Klan was not formed until 1868, Floyd decided to give his Southern vigilantes a fictive designation.

"I made up the Guardian Knights, but many such groups existed in the South after the Civil War. One was called the Knights of the Black Magnolias. I used the Klan in the first version, even though it was chronologically wrong, but I was glad to get away from the Klan because we view it as slightly humorous, even though we know how dangerous it can be. It seems so absurd to us."

Floyd has invested considerable time to rework his opera, and his hopes for its success are high. Despite the popularity of his "Susannah" and "Of Mice and Men," "Jonathan Wade" is his epic work, not only in terms of its grand historical theme but in its large cast and musical breadth.

"In the context of Floyd's career, 'Jonathan Wade' has always been his biggest and grandest opera, and the revision is even longer," Pollack said.

The composer now has four chances in four cities to win public approval for his grand opera on a topic so close to his Southern heart.

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