I directed Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah very early in my career – so early, in fact, that it was the first production for which someone else engaged me as a director. It was far from my first show but, until then, I had directed productions because I had made them happen myself and not because someone had wanted to hire me. It was a project of many firsts for me – not least that this was the UK premiere of the opera – and I look back on it with both fond memories and an eye for its place in the development of my work.
An intriguing aspect of Susannah is that Floyd did what many directors find themselves doing with their productions, which is to relocate and update a story to help it connect with an audience. The original tale of Susanna and the Elders is set in ancient Babylon and comes to us, appropriately enough, from the apocryphal additions to the Book of Daniel. It concerns the wife of a Jewish merchant who is falsely accused of promiscuity by men who have spied on her bathing and then tried, unsuccessfully, to bribe her into having sex; she is sentenced to death and only saved at the last moment by Daniel’s own intervention. Handel wrote an oratorio on the subject in the 1740s, composing some beautiful and moving music to communicate its criticism of hypocrisy and the presumption of guilt.
Writing in the 1950s, Floyd made his message hit home by adapting the story with his own libretto, setting it in contemporary Tennessee and drawing apparent parallels with the McCarthyist inquisitions of the time (much as Arthur Miller did in The Crucible). The piece also has strong feminist and existentialist themes that are very much features of the post-war era and only retrospectively implicit in the original story.
This transportation to another time and place inevitably required much attention to detail from Floyd. The words, for example, do not merely reflect contemporary American speech but a specific dialect. Memorable lines like, “I wouldn’t tech them peas o’ her’n”, relocate the story from biblical Babylon to the Bible belt as clearly as any set design ever could.
Like the folk melodies that Floyd took as sources of inspiration, this specificity is much of what makes Susannah a hugely popular American classic. It may also be why the piece has not travelled much and why I, then a relatively inexperienced young director, found myself entrusted with its UK premiere. Critics and the rest of the operatic establishment outside America (who might not blanch at a production of Parsifal set in space) seem to have taken a strangely unimaginative view of the opera’s insular community, as if its meaning could only ever be similarly narrow in its appeal. This is not a view I shared then, any more than I do now.
Bringing work closer to audiences is a fundamental drive in my approach. Whether by resurrecting a piece from the past, presenting it in a certain way for a particular audience, disarming viewers by eschewing convention, geographically challenging the physical divide between performance and public or making a movie out of Renaissance madrigals, I have consistently aimed to narrow the gaps. In some ways, Susannah is where that drive began.
Our production was a so-called community project, in that the chorus was amateur – including lots of kids – with a cast of young professionals. Chorus rehearsals took place at the weekends over the month or so prior to the main rehearsal period. At the time, I was freelancing as an assistant at Scottish Opera (where I later returned to direct Handel’s Semele), so I had to take a few memorable flights in what I have ever since not so lovingly referred to as rubber-band planes from Glasgow early on Saturday mornings before a day and a half with some extremely enthusiastic children, awkwardly keen teenagers and a few hugely willing but variously talented adults. They were drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures but the chance to take part in an opera, of all things, unleashed a terrific energy from just about everyone. Whatever they lacked in technique, they made up for in passion. This was considerably enhanced by the piece itself, which is all about community: the chorus needed to be a force to be reckoned with and this one turned out to be just that.
We were in Birmingham (West Midlands – not Alabama, USA), the industrial heartland of England and very far away indeed from the Appalachian Mountains. There were no Americans in the cast, though many of us had visited. Our view of Floyd’s world was inaccurate and, if anything, the production was inflected more by my nostalgic and all-but-forgotten infant memories of Connecticut than with precise research on the Deep South. In some ways, therefore, staging Susannah in the UK became about generalising Floyd’s particulars and removing some of the specificity that locates the opera so precisely. Attention to naturalistic detail was deliberately lax and our attempts at authentic accents were less deliberately pitiful. Nevertheless, we believed in what we were doing. We had the impression of a world that seemed credible to us in terms that were meaningful to us. So long as we communicated that, we believed, the audience would feel the same.
The space at Midlands Arts Centre (or the mac as it became known) was unconventional, which forced us to think, quite literally, outside the box. My designer was used to staging in-the-round but I had done almost nothing without a proscenium arch. The result, subsequently, was certainly a contribution towards making the audience feel involved and was definitely a case of narrowing the gap. We created a thrust stage that, with the audience on three sides, shoved the story into the public arena. Spectators became voyeurs in a space in which even looking at the stage, let alone stepping on it, was an infringement of personal liberty. We may not have communicated an accurate rendition of Tennessee but the audience absolutely understood their own part in the story and we had a considerable success. People at mac still talk of Susannah, a decade and a half later.
Perhaps Susannah will always mean something more in the United States, just as Verdi’s political operas will always touch rawer passions in a united Italy, but that is because Floyd had an American audience in mind. For Florentine’s audience, I hope this true. However, while Americans might rightly love the opera as theirs, I do not believe that its specificity is what actually makes it great.
Just as the exceptionally parochial characters in Peter Grimes (that British pageant of Cold War paranoia) do not absolve the rest of us of hypocrisy, so there is an Olin Blitch and Mrs. McClean to be found in many a community around the world. Susannah herself is an archetypal symbol of modern womanhood, who will not accept injustice as a status quo. She is an outsider, who will not and must not conform to what is wrong – she is Carmen without the sin. Such figures are not bound by the borders of culture and nationality any more than Carmen struggles to find audiences beyond the slopes of the Pyrenees. Fundamentally, Susannah is no more about square dances and jaybirds than Carmen is about orange sellers and cigarettes. Both are really about the would-be indomitable human spirit and society’s need to dominate it.
Like all great art, it is the universality of a work that truly matters and I remain convinced that Floyd meant his reworking of ‘Susanna and the Elders’ to be expansive, rather than reductive – much as I believe that Mozart wrote Idomeneo as more than an essay on Ancient Greece.
John La Bouchardière