Falling Up: The Days and Nights of Carlisle Floyd
By Thomas Holliday. Foreword by Plácido Domingo
Syracuse University Press; 509 pp. $45
The field of accomplished opera composers is more crowded today than it was in 1955, when Carlisle Floyd wrote his career-making breakthrough, Susannah. "The old girl," as he later referred to his lean and turbulent music drama about an ennobled outsider in the conservative American south, was the first American opera since Gershwin's Porgy and Bess to enjoy more than a sojourn in the repertory. Floyd's triumph was no flash in the pan, either; Susannah's success kicked off an astounding fifty-year run for the composer. Memorable works such as Wuthering Heights (1958), Of Mice and Men (1970), Willie Stark (1981) and Cold Sassy Tree (2000) followed and ushered in the "great book" movement in opera seemingly favored by a younger generation of American composers, notably Mark Adamo and Jake Heggie. In Falling Up, author Thomas Holliday attempts to give Floyd his due with an exhaustive, minutely detailed chronicle of the composer's life and career.
Born in 1926 to a family dominated by its Methodist, itinerant preacher patriarch, Floyd developed a rugged individualism and, in spite of his father's pragmatic expectations, nurtured creative instincts by writing short stories and playing the piano. Winning a scholarship for the latter, Floyd flourished at university, publishing original stories, performing in theater productions and giving recitals, until he eventually found the perfect musical alloy for his talents — opera. With casts including Phyllis Curtin, Mack Harrell and Norman Treigle, Floyd's career took off at Julius Rudel's New York City Opera, where works by living composers, many of them American, dominated the company's prospectuses. At NYCO, Floyd enjoyed the opportunity to develop toward artistic maturity before the fickle public eye, but his decision to move operations to Houston in 1974 and co-found the Houston Opera Studio with David Gockley was, perhaps, as essential to his artistic legacy as his operas.
Holliday's account benefits from his extensive access to Floyd's letters, scores, and to the composer himself. As one might expect from an authorized biography, Falling Up is rarely equivocal on the subject of Floyd's importance and influence, but Holliday's laser-like focus on the details of his subject's career lends an objective authority rather than hagiographic glaze to much of the material within its covers. While Holliday's approach exhausts the archival sources, there is comparatively little consideration for where all these details situate Floyd among his contemporaries during a fascinating period of American musical history. Samuel Barber, for example, enters the narrative only when snubbing Floyd at a post-concert reception; precious little is said about that composer's old girl, Vanessa, which played at the Metropolitan Opera while Susannah ruled NYCO. Systematic musical analyses of every Floyd composition and synopsis of each stage work regularly interrupt Holliday's slavishly chronological narrative. Considering the author's emphasis on documentation, it is regrettable that Holliday's only appendix is a lengthy discourse on Floyd genealogy; a complete list of works, staged productions and recordings would have broader utility to Floyd researchers and fans.
Whereas the operas of Carlisle Floyd typically hit audiences with urgency and visceral impact, Falling Up labors under its own persnickety weightiness. As a foundation for Floyd studies, Holliday's work constitutes a tremendous resource, but as an engaging portrait it ultimately falls down.
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