Carlisle Floyd, American opera founding father, has died at age 95 : Deceptive Cadence Known primarily for his southern-flavored operas, Floyd helped create an American opera vernacular. His 1955 hit Susannah won the New York Music Critics Circle Award and helped launch his career.

Carlisle Floyd, a founding father of American opera, has died at age 95

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

People talk about the Great American Novel, right? But what about the Great American Opera? That honor may just go to "Susannah," written by Carlisle Floyd, who died Thursday at the age of 95. Floyd's operas examined the post-Civil War South, the Great Depression and small-town life.

NPR's Tom Huizenga has this remembrance.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: "Susannah" was the third of more than a dozen operas composed by Carlisle Floyd. And it would remain his greatest success.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TREES ON THE MOUNTAIN")

UNIDENTIFIED PERFORMER #1: (As Susannah, singing) The trees on the mountains are cold and bare.

HUIZENGA: Floyd was only 28 when "Susannah" debuted in 1955. In college, he was a pianist and a playwright - until he began thinking about mixing his own words and music together, as he told NPR in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CARLISLE FLOYD: When I started out in this business in the '40s as a kid, really, what I felt that I would love to help develop was a serious musical theater - create our own musical theater for our own time and for our own audiences.

HUIZENGA: "Susannah," set in the South and based on a Biblical story, was serious musical theater. But the late Phyllis Curtin, who created the title role, told the National Endowment for the Arts in 2008 that not everyone thought so at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHYLLIS CURTIN: Carlisle's opera was largely being called by all kinds of people a folk opera. Now why a folk opera?

HUIZENGA: Well, maybe it was just a Northern classical music establishment bias against Floyd. He grew up in South Carolina, the son of a Methodist minister. Or it might have been because "Susannah" includes music like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JAYBIRD")

UNIDENTIFIED PERFORMER #2: (As Sam, singing) Oh, jaybird sittin' on a hickory limb. He winked at me, and I winked at him. I picked up a brickbat and hit him on the chin. Look-a here, little boy, don't you do that again.

UNIDENTIFIED PERFORMERS #1 AND #2: (As Sam and Susannah, singing) Oh, jaybird sittin' on a hickory limb. He winked at me, and I winked at him.

HUIZENGA: Sounds like a folk song, but it's not. It's Carlisle Floyd's music. The words, however, come from Floyd's childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FLOYD: It's a bit of Southern doggerel that my grandfather used to sing to me when I was a kid, actually. But I thought it was hilarious.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JAYBIRD")

UNIDENTIFIED PERFORMER #1: (As Susannah, laughter).

HUIZENGA: "Susannah" not only put Floyd's name on the operatic map, but it also inspired a younger generation of singers and administrators, like David Gockley, who mounted a production of the work as soon as he became Houston Grand Opera's general director in 1972.

DAVID GOCKLEY: "Susannah" convinced me that there was the opportunity to have an American opera repertoire.

HUIZENGA: In 2000, Gockley debuted Floyd's "Cold Sassy Tree," another opera set in the South.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "COLD SASSY TREE")

PATRICIA RACETTE: (As Love Simpson, singing) One night when I was 9, my heart went out and left me alone - alone.

HUIZENGA: Soprano Patricia Racette sang a lead role in the world premiere. Via Skype, she calls singing Floyd's distinctly American operas a gift.

RACETTE: Those stories are ours. I relish when I get a chance to be part of storytelling that is my own heritage.

HUIZENGA: Although "Cold Sassy Tree" is a comedy, Racette says her first big scene is filled with the drama of escaping poverty.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "COLD SASSY TREE")

RACETTE: (As Love Simpson, singing) Rented rooms, rented rooms - that's all I've ever known - rented rooms in boarding houses.

The marriage of text and music was so essential to him. It wasn't simply underscoring the text or trying to bring it alive.

HUIZENGA: And that was especially true for Floyd's "Susannah" and its big aria, "Ain't It A Pretty Night," says soprano Phyllis Curtin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CURTIN: "Ain't It A Pretty Night" is perhaps one of the most natural expressions of anything that I ever sang.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T IT A PRETTY NIGHT")

CURTIN: (As Susannah, singing) The sky's so dark and velvet-like. And it's all lit up with stars. It's like a great big mirror reflectin' fireflies over a pond. Look at all them stars. The longer you look, the more you see.

HUIZENGA: The aria has been sung by countless sopranos. And a few of them once gave Carlisle Floyd the compliment of a lifetime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FLOYD: I was told by some singers in New York recently - they said, do you know what we call "Ain't It A Pretty Night" now? It's the sopranos national anthem.

HUIZENGA: Just another reason why the late Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah" might just be the Great American Opera - Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T IT A PRETTY NIGHT")

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