Music genius: how opera turned Southern life into operatic tales of fortune, poison and murder

Carlisle Floyd, who made opera that turned Southern life into operatic tales of fortune, poison and murder, died on January 23, surrounded by his family. He was 95. Floyd made operas that drew from…

Music genius: how opera turned Southern life into operatic tales of fortune, poison and murder

Carlisle Floyd, who made opera that turned Southern life into operatic tales of fortune, poison and murder, died on January 23, surrounded by his family. He was 95.

Floyd made operas that drew from American Gothic lore, the story of John Wallace, the mule whoremonger who learned his lessons in his wagon, and Edgar Lee Masters, a notorious murderer who blew up a train, only to end up on the wrong side of history and serving 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Floyd discovered opera when he first saw Count Alder in an opera at the New York City Opera in 1941. After the war, he moved to his native South Carolina, where he made his operas and became one of the country’s most respected baritones, singing for orchestras as far away as Tel Aviv and St. Petersburg, the CBC reported.

Floyd would later describe his operas as “bodies of life and death … people on the margins of society.” He felt the opera equivalent of a jungle theater in a state like South Carolina – a place where things aren’t always what they seem.

Floyd himself often believed that things weren’t what they seemed. In fact, he said, operas depended on his own personality and his heightened sense of reality.

“We do not trust our senses,” he once told the CBC. “Everything is illusion.”

In his opera, Southland Livewire, a man stands atop an outhouse and performs with a microphone. “Right, you dirty old bird!” the man says, “y’all are pulling my hair!” He then taunts fellow jailbirds, like a raccoon who dines on bait.

“The plot, I admit, is corny,” Floyd said. “But don’t get oldsters too turned off by it.”

Eventually, he said, a Texas man named Kevin Burdette wrote to Floyd, telling him he wanted to make an opera about his mother. Floyd quickly responded, suggesting someone more contemporary, a famous American old-timer. As it turned out, that was him.

Floyd and Burdette wrote that their mother had been there for them. They had some messages to send: “You teach me to appreciate life,” she said, “and for many years to come I will reward you with a generous life of love.” Then came a couple real-life Southside men who had been there, from his mom’s house in 1948, to his retirement home in 2016.

That story turned into a 1971 opera, Castor Furioso, with a murder that does not involve serial killers. But Burdette was convinced that the opera was very much his mother, and would now have to keep her secrets and her stories alive.

Floyd would return again and again to his favorite subjects: the back story of the Southern millionaire he nicknamed “Rider,” the family man who comes to Tennessee after he and his assistant stumble upon a sickly girl.

It’s a family that always tries, at a distance, to stay hidden, like those three Southern guys at a bar who tease “a bloody girl” by yelling their versions of her truths to her. The original version of the opera was called a macabre folktale because it posited that something supernatural might be responsible for the girl’s sickness, that the family had some special way of guarding her.

It isn’t always believable. But there is something that always makes it real – the subterfuge, the lies and the love, and the fear that something bad could happen. The repertory didn’t contain a performance as fun as the last for Floyd: The Tennessee West Virginians now singing their heads off for the producers.

For a song that changed opera forever, listen to the final scene in Castor Furioso, and then hear what Floyd and Burdette had to say after they have won the Tony:

“This old mountain dyin’ does darken my eyes … I tell you,” he tells them, “it ain’t me, it ain’t them, it ain’t anything.

“I did what I could, to hide from my mama. But, you know, people get mad at a mother. And, there’s always this warning: When you run from your mama, and you get caught, run out into the highway.”

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