There’s nothing old about ‘Susannah’

January 28, 2007.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Twin Cities audiences have the rare chance to see one of the most popular American operas with a fresh orchestration in Theatre Latté Da’s “Susannah.”

Given the general popularity of "Susannah," artistic director Peter Rothstein was wary of claiming the title "Area Premiere" for his upcoming Theatre Latte Da production. He could find no evidence of previous stagings and agreed over the phone when told that a search of the Star Tribune library contained no reviews of Carlisle Floyd's opera in the past 20 years. Still, we're talking about one of the most-produced American operas ever written.

"It surprises me," Rothstein said. "It's a great opera for universities to do because it's 20th-century music, the characters are young, and it's compact [about 80 minutes in two acts] in structure."

But sure enough, as soon as you say or write that a particular show is “first ever,” the e-mail box lights up with recollections of the 1977 production by “Our Town Community College” or the 1984 staging by “Metro Civic Opera.” So it’s best to simply report that Rothstein’s coming production is a rare opportunity to see “Susannah” on a Twin Cities stage.

This is Latté Da’s second foray into opera, following its successful reworking of “La Bohème” in 2005. Rothstein and music director Joesph Schlefke telescoped that score into an intimate arrangement of Parisian atmosphere. Could another piece similarly benefit from a new approach to orchestration, content and form?

“Is there a sound for this thing that would be much closer to the world that surrounds these people?” Rothstein asked.

Considering the Appalachian milieu of “Susannah,” Schlefke opted for piano, violin, guitar, banjo, oboe, and string bass. In addition, actor Meghann Schmidt will play autoharp on two folk songs that her lead character sings. “Like Bohème,’ there’s a vulnerability that is spare and delicate,” said Rothstein. “In an opera there is often a cushion of sound, but I’ve been telling the singers that you can’t do that here, you can’t surf on the orchestration.

His greatest hit “Susannah” is Carlisle Floyd’s most popular work. He wrote it while a professor at Florida State University in 1955. The next year it traveled to the New York City Opera, where it won the New York City Music Critic’s Circle Award. It then began its amazingly popular circuit around the United States and into Europe. Renee Fleming and Samuel Ramey headlined a 1993 production by the Lyric Opera of Chicago and again were featured when the piece debuted with the Metropolitan Opera in 1999.

Floyd, who left Florida State for the University of Houston in 1976, has many other operatic and musical theater credits, the most prominent of which is “Of Mice and Men,” commissioned in 1970 by the Seattle Opera.

For inspiration, Floyd drew on the apocryphal story of a young woman accused by elders of immorality after she rejected their advances. She is saved from death when the prophet Daniel intervenes and exposes the elders as liars.

Meghann Schmidt is Susannah, and Bryan Boyce portrays Olin Blitch in “Susannah.” The story of a woman accused of immorality in a McCarthy-era Southern town is “very fitting for this time in history,” said director Peter Rothstein.

Floyd moved the tale to Tennessee and set it amid 1950s McCarthyism and religious intolerance. Susannah Polk faces an angry town and a solicitous preacher eager to prove her innocence if she accedes to his randy wishes. Matters spin toward a nasty conclusion, and Susannah’s reputation is forever soiled.

“It’s very fitting for this time in history, with the rise of the Christian Right,” Rothstein said. “I’m interested in this dialogue between church and politics and what they do in terns of marginalized cultures. We’ve really heightened the gender politics of the piece.”

Even so, Rothstein said he’s trying to shade the stark choices in Floyd’s melodramatic scenario. For example, the key role of the Rev. Olin Blitch was envisioned as an elderly fellow. In Latté Da’s staging, young Bryan Boyce will play the part. That Susannah might be tempted by a young, handsome man seemed more realistic and complex, Rothstein said, rather than the obvious repulsion she might feel with a dirty old man. Rothstein is not greatly concerned that he has not seen a production of “Susannah,” unlike much of the existing work he stages. Sometimes the outlook of another director helps, sometimes “you see something that needs to be much more magical.” For his interpretation he is collaborating with set designer John Clark Donahue (“he’s so great with this more expressionistic stuff”) and lighting director Marcus Dillard, of whom Rothstein can confidently say, “this is the first time he’s worked with us.”

No one can challenge that.