CU's Leigh Holman pays tribute to American opera with Susannah
Leigh Holman has faith in the future of American opera. The director of opera at the University of Colorado has made the native art form a priority at the school, hosting American composers for workshops and offering American musical drama during summer seasons. The school's upcoming production of Carlisle Floyd's 1955 opera Susannah is the latest selection in the school's menu of homegrown musical drama. Westword caught up with Holman to discuss what makes the opera accessible for modern audiences.
Westword (A.H. Goldstein): Can you start out by giving a simple synopsis of Susannah for the non-opera crowd?
Leigh Holman: It's based on an apocryphal story from the Bible called "Susannah and the Elders;" it's based on that, although it's set in the 1950s in the mountains of Tennessee. That happens to be where I'm from.
It's about a young woman, Susannah, who is a beautiful, free spirited girl. One day, she's bathing on her own property. Four elders from the church see her. They go back to town and spread rumors about her; the rumors grow and grow. It becomes almost a mob rule situation. Carlisle Floyd wrote this during McCarthyism. When somebody starts gossiping about somebody, everybody gets on the bandwagon. That's what the theme of the opera is about.
WW: So are there echoes of Arthur Miller's The Crucible?
LH: In that sense, yeah. It's like a witch trial. Everybody in town starts gossiping about her. She is a virgin, but the family preacher comes by to save her soul because of the rumors that she's a loose woman. He ends up having his way with her. At the end of the opera, Susannah's brother Sam finds out what the preacher has done to her. Sam shoots the preacher, and the whole town comes with flashlights and torches to find Sam and Susannah -- by that time, she's gone completely crazy. She's standing on her front porch with her shotgun and she's laughing. She's completely lost her mind. Because of this mob rule, they took a beautiful, sweet, virginal girl and through gossip, they drove her to her wit's end.
WW: What was it about this piece that appealed to you? Why did you forego the traditional Italian or French pieces that always seem to make it into the regular seasons?
LH: First of all, there are a couple of arias from the piece that are often done in auditions, when young people are singing. There are four very popular pieces -- "The Trees on the Mountain," "Ain't It a Pretty Night," those are two of Susannah's arias. The preacher has one and Sam has one that's a really popular tenor aria, too. When someone auditions with English arias, you hear them often. It makes people curious: What is the opera that all of these are from?
We decided last year to have an all-American season because, last year, we kicked off our CU New Opera Works program, which is promoting new, American opera. We had composers come in to work with our students, and we decided to do that again this summer. We decided to have an all-American season to introduce people to these classic American pieces.