At 85, American composer Carlisle Floyd still has plenty to say about opera.

 

On Saturday evening at the opera, a dapper, 85-year-old Southern gentleman joined cast and crew on stage, visibly moved by the standing ovation and thundering applause that greeted him. The elder statesman of American opera, Carlisle Floyd has made a strong impression on his first trip to Sydney for the national premiere of his masterpiece Of Mice and Men.

Based on the classic John Steinbeck novella, it was completed in 1969 and has since become a major repertory piece in the US, recently surpassing Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess as the country’s most frequently staged opera. But in Australia the composer is hardly known, with lovers of the artform more likely to cite Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (directed by Bruce Beresford for Opera Australia in 2007) or John Adams’ Nixon in China as staples of American opera than to claim familiarity with Floyd’s many contributions to the genre. Judging by the audience reaction to the triumphant opening night performance on July 23, that’s all set to change.

When I visited Floyd at the Opera Centre in Surry Hills last week he was in high spirits, sipping Diet Coke and relaxing after witnessing a dress rehearsal that he and conductor Andrea Molino agree went “too well.” The octogenarian wears a hearing aid but his whip-like intellect is sharp as ever.

Of Mice and Men’s tragic tale of hardship and companionship has resonated with the South Carolina-born composer since childhood. “I think I knew this class of people, when I grew up it was in the middle of the Depression,” he says, although he insists that Steinbeck’s depiction of itinerant rural workers dreaming of a better life is not so far from the struggles of ordinary people who lost their jobs or defaulted on home loans as a result of the Great Financial Crisis of recent years.

“It’s a level of our society that’s an underclass, and it seems to always be with us, we’re seeing it all over Europe and America now. When Of Mice and Men was done in Europe, people related it to the plight of Turks looking for work in Austria now, or Algerians in France. So in other words, the idea of the migrant worker is not confined to a period or a decade.”

Although Bruce Beresford’s new production faithfully evokes the local colour of a 1930s American ranch, interestingly the original time and place are not specified in Floyd’s own libretto. “The one thing Steinbeck told me not to do was to give a date. Everybody knows it’s a Depression novel set in 1936, but he said, ‘No reference to time at all’. I took that to mean that he felt that the story itself was timeless, and could happen at any time and it was also about the drama of human attachment in this very solitary atmosphere.”

It’s an important distinction that has led to a surprising omission in so deeply human and sympathetic an opera: the character of Crooks, the African-American groom segregated from the other farmhands.

“I eliminated that very important character in the book, because at the time I felt that it was a social problem particular to the era. And I thought Steinbeck might say, ‘Well, but just a minute now,’ but he didn’t mention it.” This must have been a difficult decision at the height of the civil rights movement for a composer who acknowledges Porgy and Bess as one of the finest works in the American tradition, but it does allow for a focus on the central relationship between the slow-witted, big-hearted Lennie and his loyal friend and guardian George. And perhaps there was enough “crisis” and unrest without that additional layer. Floyd recalls one director asking him, ‘Do you realise what a violent work we’re doing?’

“The story itself is very sensitive, and the feeling between the two friends is very tender. And yet we’re in the midst of five different deaths on stage.”

Unusually for a composer, Floyd has penned the libretti to all eleven of his operas, which include a work based on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and a retelling of the biblical story of Susannah, translated to Tennessee and sung in Southern vernacular. “I had done writing in my college years and it seemed to be a very natural medium for me, adapting my own writing for the stage. I felt very confident in doing that.

“The idea of working with someone else didn’t appeal to me a great deal; people ask me even now, ‘Would you work with a collaborator?’ And I just say, ‘No, I would be far too cranky!’” he laughs.

What stories, then, are ripe for the picking? “Finding a libretto is a very difficult problem because of the demands of material,” Floyd explains. “And this is where most contemporary operas go wrong; the music may be interesting but the libretto is dead, and it’s not stage-worthy. But Of Mice and Men seemed to me ideal for a libretto – it’s full of action, it has vivid characters who reveal themselves by what they do rather than what they say.”

The challenge for a composer of opera is how to give voice to a character’s complexities, emotions and state of mind through music. A mentally impaired, intrinsically gentle role like Lennie required a sensitive approach so as not to descend into caricature. “From the very beginning I thought, ‘What kind of music do I write for someone as handicapped as he is?’” Floyd recalls. “And then I remembered in the novel that George says to the ranch hands, ‘He’s just a big kid’. And I thought, ‘Well, I can write music for a character like that – a childlike, suggestive sound.’

“In the first scene, I felt that my biggest requirement was to write something for Lennie that would demonstrate to us as an audience why George travels with him, why he takes on this enormous burden of Lennie. There’s something full of pathos about Lennie’s peculiarity of loving soft things he can pet, but the basic thing is that he’s an innocent.”

In addition to the composer’s direct involvement in the first Australian outing of Of Mice and Men, these performances have the benefit of Anthony-Dean Griffey’s experience. The American tenor has sung in eight different productions of Of Mice and Men, embracing Lennie as his signature role and crediting every subtle gesture and compassionate detail of his portrayal to his extensive work with special needs children and adults.

His standing ovation was richly deserved, but did Saturday night’s rapturous reception also signal a collective sigh of relief – ‘at last, an accessible contemporary opera we can listen to?’

Compared to some of the latest European offerings in the genre, there can be no question that the Americans are continuing the tradition of openness, gutsy transparency and unashamed lyricism that has marked the country’s most memorable contributions to the repertory. They’re also partial to a good yarn – John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, Mark Adamo’s Little Women and Jake Heggie’s powerful meditation on capital punishment, Dead Man Walking, spring to mind. Floyd follows and nurtures the work of younger generations, noting with interest that “Jake Heggie’s latest opera Moby Dick is much more conservative than anything I’d ever write!

“I think it was John Adams who said of Schoenberg – and I remember thinking, ‘Thank god someone finally has the guts to say this’ – ‘Who wants to listen to that ugly music?’ I remember the word ‘ugly’ being very strong. I bow down to [Berg’s] Wozzeck, but people frequently ask me, ‘Did you ever want to dabble in atonality?’ I always think, ‘Absolutely not’. That would never have drawn me to music.”

He is also outspoken on New York City Opera’s recent financial woes: “I think it’s tragic. I would not have had a career without City Opera. It’s a glorious company; I began with it in the 50s when they were advancing the whole cause. We were always in the vanguard there.”

More than forty years after its debut, Of Mice and Men remains one of the freshest and most compelling operas on the stage today. Can we expect more from the composer? “I’m toying with two opera libretto ideas at the moment. So I may not be through yet!”

Opera Australia’s production of Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men runs until August 11. See event details here. Opera Australia’s book club discussing the John Steinbeck novel is at the Opera Centre on Monday July 25, 6.30pm.