He & She
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He & She

CARLISLE FLOYD’s new opera, Prince of Players, bowing this month at Houston Grand Opera, takes on the subject of gender politics and theater in Charles II’s England.
by Allan Kozinn. 

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Costume design by Gregory Gale for Kynaston in Prince of Players at HGO
Courtesy Houston Grand Opera
“I had some praise that said lyricism was the strongest thing in my lexicon.” 
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Claire Danes and Billy Crudup in Stage Beauty, the 2004 film about Kynaston
© Lions Gate/Photofest

WHEN CARLISLE FLOYD COMPLETED Cold Sassy Tree, in 2000, everyone thought it would be his farewell to opera. He was about to turn seventy-four, and he had eleven operas behind him—twelve, if you count The Fugitives, a 1951 work that he withdrew shortly after its premiere. The tuneful Susannah and the emotionally pointed Of Mice and Men have slipped into the modern canon.

“I think Carlisle considered himself retired, without ever having said those words,” says Patrick Summers, artistic and music director of Houston Grand Opera, who conducted Cold Sassy Tree with the company. “The work felt like his Falstaff. It was a very American valedictory, a summing up of a life. That was kind of what the piece was about, and although people compared it with other works of Carlisle’s that were set in America, once you got into the cellular level, it was quite different from anything he’d written before.” 

But when Floyd visited Houston to hear Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda, in April 2012, he surprised Summers with the news that he was at work on a new opera. “Not a grand opera,” Floyd told him, “but more of a chamber opera.” It was based on the story of the Restoration actor Edward Kynaston—one of the last men to play female roles on the British stage before King Charles II decreed, in 1661, that “No He shall ere again upon an English stage play she.”

Floyd’s relationship with HGO goes back to 1972, when David Gockley presented Susannah during his first season as the company’s general director. Floyd moved to Houston in 1976 and remained there for twenty years (he now lives in Tallahassee), teaching at the University of Houston. He cofounded, with Gockley, the HGO Studio, a young artists’ program for which he remains an artistic consultant. HGO presented the premieres of Floyd’s Bilby’s Doll (1976), Willie Stark (1981), the 1992 overhaul of The Passion of Jonathan Wade (originally 1962) and Cold Sassy Tree (2000), and it has recorded Of Mice and Men.

So as soon as Floyd mentioned his project, Prince of Players, Summers told him Houston would present it. The work will have its premiere at HGO’s Cullen Theater on March 5, with Summers conducting and HGO Studio singers Ben Edquist and Mane Galoyan in the lead roles.

In some ways the opera is classic Floyd: he wrote his own libretto, as always, and the music is in the accessibly lyrical style that he has consistently championed. But it also explores unusual territory for the composer. Though most of his works unfold in American settings, and usually during the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, Prince of Players takes place in mid-seventeenth-century London. And although he has retained aspects of the modern American musical accent that suffuses his music, he tips his hat to the work’s time and place by incorporating trills, turns and other hints of Baroque elegance. 

“That was the only thing I wanted to do to suggest the period,” the eighty-nine-year-old composer says of these neo-Baroque touches. “But otherwise, I don’t think the style is very different from my earlier works. It’s quite a lyrical work, and I wanted to get as much of that style that I’m comfortable with into this opera, because I believe that’s what makes operas durable. I had some critical praise, early in my career, that said that lyricism was the strongest thing in my lexicon. So I decided that any time there seemed to be an appropriate moment for lyricism in this work, I was going to exploit it.”

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The 2012 dedication of the Carlisle Floyd Rehearsal room at HGO, with Perryn Leech, Floyd, Lynn Wyatt and Patrick Summers
© Courtesy Houston Grand Opera
 

Floyd based the opera on Jeffrey Hatcher’s 1999 play, Compleat Female Stage Beauty, a work he first encountered as Stage Beauty, the 2004 film version starring Billy Crudup and Claire Danes.  

“I was getting eager to try my hand again,” Floyd says, “and when I saw the film, I thought, ‘Wow—this has the basic ingredient I think a libretto really has to have,’ which is an atmosphere of crisis. The conflict is built in, through the actions of Charles II and how that affects Kynaston, a young man who has had a brilliant career. The only thing I changed was that the film had more humor than I wanted in it.” 

The work shows the degree to which Charles II’s edict devastated Kynaston, who was then in his early twenties and had played women onstage since he was a child. And though the solution is self-evident—he could (and eventually did, with considerable success) perform men’s roles—it took time and the devotion of his female successor, Margaret Hughes, before he could make the leap. 

In most of Floyd’s works, the central character is a social outsider who comes into conflict with the social majority. In Bilby’s Doll, for example, Doll Bilby’s spirituality is at odds with that of the Puritan community in which she lives; in The Passion of Jonathan Wade, the title character is a Union officer in Columbia, S.C., after the Civil War, trying to administer the city fairly amid pressures from both carpetbaggers and vigilantes. Prince of Players has two groups of outsiders—men such as Kynaston, who see their art and tradition being swept away, and women such as Margaret, who want to act but have been kept off the stage by the tradition in which Kynaston has flourished. But where the conflicts often end tragically, this time Floyd presents a solution in which everyone benefits. The key is in the relationship between Kynaston and Margaret. 

“Their relationship inevitably becomes something sexual,” he says, “at least briefly, but enough that her countering his view of acting, and her denunciation of his way of overplaying the frailty of women, shakes him up and changes him. He discovers his anger in that scene, and that taps into his innate maleness. He realizes that if he’s going to play male roles, he’s going to play them as a very dominant male.” 

When I suggest that he has to write at least one more opera, if only because a composer whose output is so closely tied to American stories should not end his career with a work set in seventeenth-century England, Floyd laughs and says, “I’ll take that under consideration. But I haven’t thought that far. I still feel so close to this one.” spacer 

Allan Kozinn, for many years a music critic for The New York Times, is a freelance writer about music and culture. 

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