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Susanne Mentzer Headshot

Musical New Year's Wish

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There is one opera I want to see in 2012:Willie Stark by Carlisle Floyd. Opera companies are missing the boat if they do not produce it this year. Each election cycle I eagerly await a production but there is none to be had.

I saw the premiere of Willie Stark in at the Houston Grand Opera in 1981, directed by Hal Price and conducted by John Demain. It was so memorable and accessible I can still hum the main theme. The production was dedicated to the newsman Lowell Thomas whose voice was used as part of the work. An edited version of the piece was broadcast on PBS.

Willie Stark is taken from the Robert Penn Warren novel All the Kings Men, which was inspired by the Louisiana politician Huey Long.

What work could be better? It is a timeless story, complete with corruption, love fulfilled and unrequited, clean and dirty hands, murder and dealing with those gray areas of politics.

In my opinion Carlisle Floyd, who is now 85, is an under-rated composer with his own finger on the American heart and ear. Most people think of him as the composer of the Pulitzer Prize winning Susannah composed in 1955 and performed continually to great acclaim. But he is so much more. Since then he has composed at least nine operas. Few people are aware of his other vocal compositions for voice and orchestra: The Mystery (on motherhood), Flower and Hawk (on Elinor of Aquitaine) and song cycles with piano -- one that I premiered in 1983 and frustratingly cannot get recorded called Citizen of Paradise -- a mono-drama based on letters and poems of Emily Dickinson.

Carlisle Floyd does not know I am writing about him. As a matter of fact, he would no doubt be a little embarrassed. He is a true southern gentleman, one of the few of his ilk remaining. I first met him when I auditioned for the Houston Opera Studio in 1981, of which he was the co-director with the visionary impresario of Houston Grand Opera, David Gockley. (The latter is now at San Francisco Opera).

When he was commissioned to compose the Dickinson piece for Dickinson College (no relation) in Carlisle, PA (also no relation) he asked me to learn it. I was a young, uninformed singer and was incredibly flattered to be asked to sing this work. I remember Carlisle, who was then on faculty at the University of Houston, coming in each day with manuscripts of each song, almost illegible to me, and coaching me, and the pianist Craig Bohmler. It was an extraordinary experience as Carlisle was concerned that the piece fit both of us. (Craig is an extraordinary pianist and now a composer in his own right.) We performed the cycle for the opening of a concert hall at Dickinson in June 1983. Carlisle also received an honorary doctorate that weekend.

It is hard to put into words this extraordinary experience. What I can tell you is that his music is as honest and as soulful as they come. Without fail it produces tears at just the right time. Carlisle captures the American soul in his music, no matter what he composes. Simplicity and complexity reside together.

I have yet to perform the Dickinson cycle without a strong emotional reaction from the audience. Carlisle let me put my own emotional life into this work. I believe each audience member who hears any of his compositions does the same. One cannot separate the emotion from the sound.

Here is Carlisle Floyd at age 85, humbly and quietly existing, still composing and directing his works. How many times have we musicians wished to know the true intent of a composer? How many musicologists look to recordings supervised by a composer? One of the great challenges for us as performers is to get into the composer's mind. Here we have Carlisle Floyd among our midst who should be honored and utilized at least for historical reasons but foremost because he is a damn great composer.

My personal New Year's wish is for Willie Stark to appear again on a professional stage and that I perhaps might get to record Citizen of Paradise under his supervision before it is too late, not for the money but for history's sake.