Innocence Lost in Susannah
CFA’s production of American opera opens tonight
In the slide show above, the Susannahs from both casts, Chelsea Basler (CFA’09,’11) and Ashley Logan (CFA’10), talk about playing the title role. "Ain’t It a Pretty Night," sung by Phyllis Curtin, composed by Carlisle Floyd. Photos by Vernon Doucette and Kalman Zabarsky. Photos below by Frank Curran
When Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah premiered on February 24, 1955, at Florida State University, Phyllis Curtin, now College of Fine Arts dean emerita and founder of the Opera Institute at Boston University, played the title role.
More than half a century later, the composer and the original star are joining forces again, this time for CFA’s production of Susannah, which opens tonight at the BU Theatre Mainstage. Floyd and Curtin, who gave master classes and were at several rehearsals, will also hold discussions before the first two performances.
“There is something so direct about Susannah that it’s marvelous to play as a singer — she’s so genuine,” says Curtin (above). “It’s one of the reasons I’ve never wanted to coach anyone as Susannah. It’s all there. You can find her more easily on your own, rather than having someone tell you how she ought to be.”
Susannah features conductor William Lumpkin, a CFA professor, two casts of singers from the Opera Institute and the school of music vocal program, and accompaniment by the BU Chamber Orchestra. Sharon Daniels, a CFA associate professor and director of the Opera Institute and Opera Programs, is stage director.
Daniels, who also has sung the role of Susannah, says having Floyd and Curtin as part of the production has long been a goal. “Both Carlisle and Phyllis have been teachers of mine,” she says. “I remember listening to recordings of Phyllis’ Susannah — before we ever met — because it was so amazing.”
One of the most-performed American operas, Susannah tells the story of Susannah, a girl whose innocence is destroyed by rumors, jealousy, and lust. It’s show of people’s hypocrisy is thought to reflect the fear associated with McCarthyism.
Adapted from the Biblical tale of Susannah and the Elders, minus the happy ending, the opera follows 18-year-old Susannah Polk, who is denounced as a sinner in the small mountain town of New Hope Valley, Tenn. Influenced by the elders, traveling preacher Olin Blitch and the townspeople shun Susannah.
When Susannah refuses to repent, Blitch pressures her into sex. Afterwards, guilt-ridden, Blitch tries to persuade the townspeople to forgive her. They refuse, and Susannah refuses to forgive him. Susannah’s brother avenges her by killing Blitch, and when the townspeople confront Susannah, she stands her ground.
“The underlying character of the McCarthy era was like the Salem witch trials,” says Floyd (above), who, while working at Florida State, had to sign an affidavit saying he was not a member of the Communist Party. “You point a finger, and there at the end of the finger is the witch. And it was up to the witch being accused to prove her innocence.”
Still, Floyd says, Susannah was written to be timeless.
“The idea for Susannah was simple: a friend of mine asked if I’d ever thought about updating the story of Susannah and the Elders,” he says. “It immediately struck fire with my imagination, and I saw wonderful dramatic potential.”
The CFA Schools of Music and Theatre production of Susannah runs from April 15 through 18, at the BU Theatre, Mainstage, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Tickets are $20 for the public and $15 for BU alumni, WGBH members, Huntington Theatre Company subscribers, students, and senior citizens. Members of the BU community get one free ticket with BU ID at the door on the day of the performance, subject to availability. Tickets and times are available here or by calling 617-933-8600.