Biblical stories have commonly found their way into the performing arts, often taking on the cultural flavour of the time in which they were created. You need look no further than shows like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar or Darren Aronofsky’s film, Noah, for eye opening examples of this. Yet, an intriguing case can be seen in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, a 1950s take on Susannah and the Elders from the Book of Daniel. Floyd transports the story to mid-century Tennessee, offering him the opportunity to capitalize on his gift for Appalachian musical styles. He then wraps the narrative in the social realism of composers like Kurt Weill from the 1930s and 40s. The resulting story maintains the biblical stance against false witness and hypocrisy, but also offers a more realistic account of the human cost concerning uneven, patriarchal power dynamics.
Unlike most opera composers, Floyd took greater control over the creative process by writing not only the music but the words too! As well as being a composer, Floyd was also a successful playwright, having won acclaim for his literary abilities while still an undergraduate. Floyd’s double duty created a unique consistency between music and lyrics, allowing his deeply emotional voice to tug harder on the hearts on the listeners. Susannah’s fate falls far from the moral righteousness of the original story, and Floyd ensures that this change in tone does not go unnoticed. Susannah’s hardship and unfair rejection by her community shares an eerie familiarity with the fate of Fantine in Les Misérables, albeit with a slightly less tragic ending.
One of the most memorable arias from the show is “Ain’t it a Pretty Night,” sung by Susannah early in the first act. We are thankful to have Saskatoon’s own Danika Lorèn reutrning home to perform this gorgeous song. Lorèn is no stranger to the SSO or our patrons, having most recently appeared as the soprano soloist in our 2019 Messiah concert and as director for our Mozart Reimagined collaboration with the Saskatoon Opera Association. Lorèn’s gift for interpretation makes her the perfect choice to bring this remarkable, hopeful character to life, and her tenacity makes her more than a match for the musical and emotional climaxes in Floyd’s writing.
The aria scene starts with Little Bat McLean, a young man who took a shine to Susannah at a community dance, returning with her to the house that she shares with her older brother, Sam. While they idly chat on the front porch, Susannah begins to exclaim the beauty of the night sky and the world around them, displaying a literal starry-eyed optimism – at one point she describes the sky as “velvet stitched with diamon’s.” She then begins to imagine a future beyond her Appalachian setting, envisioning a life of tall buildings and mail order catalogues. Yet, she does not wish to fully leave Appalachia behind and comforts herself with the notation that she could always return. The aria’s optimistic innocence creates a strong, almost parental bond between the character and the audience that makes Susannah’s ultimate fate all the more agonizing.
This opera is truly a hidden gem of the twentieth century, and we are overjoyed to be sharing a taste of its brilliance with you in this eventful, 91st opening night concert!