With more than 230 productions and 700 performances in the U.S. and Europe, Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah" is one of the most popular American operas, second perhaps only to "Porgy and Bess."
Critics, however, have run hot and cold about it. After its New York premiere in 1956, the city's Music Critics Circle named it the season's best new opera. But just this year, after its belated first professional production in England, one reviewer called it "tawdry, faux-naif stuff."
Floyd, though, just named one of the first recipients of the NEA Opera Honors, takes such reactions with the proverbial grain of salt. "I'm just happy that the critics weren't standoffish initially, or it probably would never have become the staple that it's become," the composer, now 81, said by phone recently from the home he shares with his wife of 50 years in Tallahassee, Fla., where "Susannah" was first performed in 1955. He had agreed to a conversation because Opera Pacific will begin a four-performance run of the opera tonight at the Orange County Performing Artscenter.
Although those first New York critics proved enthusiastic, he recalled, the Chicago reviewers were "just vicious."
"I suppose it was their way of proving their independence," he said. "Now, of course, it's completely switched. There are critics in New York that feel that they have to apologize for even tolerating it. But I suppose this too shall pass. The important thing, ultimately, is the audience's response."
Inspired by the Apocryphal story of Susanna and the Elders -- a frequent inspiration of Renaissance painters but something Floyd said he never actually read until years after completing his version -- "Susannah" tells the story of an innocent young girl in rural Tennessee who is falsely accused of wickedness by church fathers. The arrival on the scene of an itinerant preacher, Olin Blitch, leads to fatal consequences.
A challenging role
Much like that of Robert Frost's poetry, the opera's musical style is superficially devoid of artifice -- but deceptively so. Canadian baritone Desmond Byrne, who sang Blitch in Berlin in 1997, said then that he had found the role more taxing than Alban Berg's famously challenging Wozzeck.
"There are huge leaps, and the orchestration is very heavy," Byrne said. "Blitch is a terribly difficult role to sing, although musically it sounds simple. It took me six weeks to learn."
South Carolina-born Floyd wrote the opera, including the libretto, when he was in his late 20s.
"Nobody knew me, and I had no reputation to lose," he said. "I felt very confident of the material, and I also felt confident of my ability at the time to bring it to the stage musically. I just make the assumption that I'm the first person to bore. At least I hope I am."
Written during the McCarthy era, "Susannah" has prompted many observers to draw parallels to that time, when reputations were destroyed by rumor and guilt by association.
"Where they really nail me with those questions is in Europe, curiously enough -- especially in Germany," Floyd said. "I remember talking to very well-informed and very literate journalists there, but they didn't seem to see the connection of fascism and its various manifestations."
Still, he did not write the opera as a polemic.
"Not at all," he said. "First of all, I think the theater is not the place for that. If it is, it should be subliminal. It should be made, believe me, without surtitles."
A full career
Since "Susannah," Floyd has written seven full-length operas, including "Of Mice and Men" (1970) and his most recent, "Cold Sassy Tree," which premiered in 2000. But his maiden effort holds a special place for him.
"I have such affection for 'Susannah' because it was a very exciting time of my life when it first was launched," he said, "and I am immensely pleased that audiences still continue to take my opera to their hearts after all these years."
Commentators agree that one thing that makes Floyd's operas so accessible is the ease with which his characters switch from speech spoken on pitch -- what's known as recitative -- to full-blown arias.
"The thing that makes opera so vulnerable to ridicule and also keeps people at arm's length sometimes is a very sharp demarcation between recitative and aria," the composer said. "I would say if I had any kind of mission -- and I have -- it was to elide those various ways of using the voice so that the audience is really unaware of the change and not bounced out of the illusion that's been created onstage.
"Otherwise, it just gets to be very dry and gray. A lot of contemporary operas hurt from that kind of grayness of vocal writing."
Asked if he cared to name names, he demurred. "No. I'm no fool."
Floyd added that during his career he's worked hard never to repeat himself.
"Nobody wants to be a one-time wonder," he said. "I hope I've escaped that. It would certainly otherwise be no growth for me, artistically or otherwise."
And although he has no new work on the horizon, he wouldn't rule out the possibility of another opera.
"I'm a composer who doesn't find subject matter that easily," he said. "You have to commit yourself to a very long period of work, and I want to be sure that I have something that I continue to be interested in. But I'm never going to say 'never.' "
Where: Opera Pacific at Segerstrom Hall, Orange County Performing Artscenter, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 tonight; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. May 22 and 24
Price: $27 to $200
Contact: (800) 346-7372 or www.operapacific.org