SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
`Mice’ steeped in lyricism of the South
by Pam Dixon
Carlisle Floyd | Of Mice and Men
South Carolina is a rural region known for its shimmering, oppressive humidity, glistening palmetto trees, magnolia-scented air and of course, its tellers of tales.
On the spare roads between small towns like Florence, Latta and Dillon, a person can travel a million miles from the 20th century in less than an hour. About the only things that connect the region to the rest of the world are words. Timeless words wrought into tales that transcend the fashion of the day and reach into the human spirit where, unbounded by geography, they make a lasting imprint.
It’s no surprise that Carlisle Floyd, who was born in 1926 in Latta, S.C., would grow into a formidable theatrical talent, weaving stories and music together to create a particular form of magic known as opera.
Floyd enjoys the distinction of being the most frequently performed American opera composer and librettist. Ever. His honest, emotionally gritty tales of demagoguery, loss, woe, happiness and flawed friendship have seen well over 800 performances in more than 285 productions.
Floyd’s nine operas include “The Passion of Jonathan Wade,” “Willie Stark” and “Bilby’s Doll.” By far his two best-known works are “Susannah,” which the Metropolitan Opera is producing this year, and “Of Mice and Men” — Floyd’s take on John Steinbeck’s classic novel — which the San Diego Opera will present at the Civic Theatre beginning Saturday.
To see Floyd outside of his relationship with the South is to look past the roots of his gifts, which he views as primarily the ability to unite drama and music.
“Whatever gifts I have I feel that they are tailored for the musical theater. That’s the only thing that ever really interested me,” he says from his Houston home. “I hope I have a gift for tailoring music to fuse with dramatic situations. Since I’m my own librettist, I work from both sides of the fence. I hope I gain a more perfect fusion of those two elements than perhaps you would get from two minds.”
Looking at Floyd’s verbal and dramatic style, he is in essence a poet who synthesizes long works, such as Steinbeck’s novels, into pithy, spare, dialogue. Brisk timing is a major issue for him. “My aim is to never give the audience enough time to blink. That’s what we’re used to in good films and good theater.”
His other verbal influences are vivid oral traditions from the South, where he has lived most of his life. “There’s a very strong rhetorical tradition in the South which appreciates and even cherishes the use of beautiful language, language that is very highly emotional,” says Floyd. “The South appreciates a kind of poetic realism, with the emphasis on poetic. It’s a matter of capsulizing — it’s stylized speech, but in the most colorful manner. It’s far more precise than anyone could just say routinely.”
Floyd cites Robert Penn Warren’s book, “All the King’s Men,” as a perfect example of the Southern rhetorical tradition. But so is Floyd’s libretto for “Of Mice and Men.” He distills the dialogue into emotionally packed, lyrical statements that punch you right in the gut. The plot is pure Steinbeck, but the words are quicker, somehow more raw and elegant at the same time. It is poetic realism at its best, and in opera, that is a rare thing.
The composer was attracted to Steinbeck’s tale of Dust Bowl migrant workers immediately. “I realized `Of Mice and Men’ was simply rife with scenes that were very high-tension dramatically. That’s the thing that appeals to me first. When I see that, then I know that I’m in the area of opera.”
But moving from the initial attraction to creating the libretto involved a painful, drawn-out process that included a complete rewrite. “It was difficult,” the composer says, noting that the opera was a “problem child.” “I did two versions. The second version by itself took a couple of years.”
After putting in two years of work on the opera, Floyd abandoned his completed first version when his closest friends told him it was boring. Floyd set aside the novel, which he feels that he “got too close to,” and started from scratch. What he finally ended up with three years later was a genuine union of Steinbeck, drama and music.
“Most of the dialogue as it turns out in the opera is mine rather than Steinbeck’s,” says Floyd. “Curley’s wife is almost entirely my creation in the sense of what she says, though certainly not the character. It’s one thing to characterize her in a novel, and another thing to show her on the stage, to make it count.”
And making it count is where the music comes in. “Music is so quick to communicate an emotion or an emotional state,” says the composer. “It does it just instantly, whereas in words, it may take awhile to establish that.”
In the first scene of the opera, Floyd creates an extraordinary bond between the two lead characters, itinerant farmhands George and his friend, the slow-witted Lennie. The composer insinuated the bond through music. To Floyd, the men’s bond is the whole point of the novel. The characters speak few words, make few motions, but the audience knows at the deepest gut level that the two men are close friends.
“Once you settle into the first scene, you go into a poetic sphere that reveals something of the inner life of these men, and also it reveals that something is shared between the two of them, because the music becomes a duet,” says Floyd.
Sweeping phrases garnished with hints of folk melodies define the sound of this opera. The music sounds like a cross between Copland and Vaughan Williams, but distinctly American. Given that various atonal music fashions were in vogue when the opera premiered in 1970, Floyd’s use of broad, tonal idioms was a brave stand at the time.
“I wasn’t going to write in any kind of tortured serial idiom. It wouldn’t fit the material. Expansive and spacious is exactly what I wanted the music to be,” he says. The composer used widely spaced chords to describe the emotional sense of Lennie’s and George’s dreams of eventually buying their own farm, and cooler, more dissonant music to paint an emotional sound picture of Curley’s wife, the eventual catalyst for the tragic end to the opera.
Throughout the work, Floyd nestles a subtle folk undercurrent into gentle melodies that appear particularly in duets. In other operas, Floyd uses undiluted Southern folk traditions in the music.
“There’s a nonsense song called the `Jaybird song’ in `Susannah.’ The words were spoken to me by my grandfather when I was a child, and I loved it because it was always funny, a surprise. But then many years later I found it listed in an anthology of Southern anonymous humor, so who knows where those things start?”
Despite how hard he has worked at the words and the music, Floyd doesn’t want the audience to go away either reciting great lines or humming a fabulous melody. For him, it’s the total human drama that should stick with you and gnaw at you. If the opera works, then it has reached what the composer calls the “opera threshold”: that place beyond which music and words unite to create an emotional explosion.
“You have to start with the whole idea of opera as an aesthetic, in that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That’s not too often accomplished,” says Floyd. “The chief aim of good opera is that if you take the music by itself or the text by itself, it may not make the same impression by a great deal that they do collectively. Otherwise, there’s no reason for the form.”
Floyd’s list of operas that meet the fusion criteria is quite short. When asked, he ticks off “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Othello,” “L’Incoronazione di Poppea,” “Carmen” and “Peter Grimes” as operas that truly unite music with words.
As far as his own operas meeting his own theories, Floyd admits that he’s proud of “Of Mice and Men” in terms of doing what he set out to accomplish. But he holds another opera closest to his heart. “I think `Willie Stark’ (based on the novel `All the King’s Men’) is an opera of mine that is probably going to have some revivals, and that people will look at it differently, probably within the next decade. I may not be around to see it, but I think that may happen.”
Floyd, 73, has written a couple of small works for voice, piano and orchestra, but he views his operas as his primary legacy. “I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve managed to create a kind of serious musical theater which I think speaks to a contemporary audience. After 40 years of this, I’ve finally been confirmed that that is the case.”
Perhaps that’s the lesson of Carlisle Floyd; that a composer with the passion and heart of a true Southern storyteller is better able to get past the angst of the day to speak to the deeper current of what is timeless and universally relevant.
That deep connection is the true magic that makes an opera work. Because in the end, it’s the heart, not the ears or the eyes, that determine an opera’s greatness.