Arts and Culture / Magazine Feature

Lamont Opera goes contemporary with ‘Susannah’

A scene from Central City Opera’s 2008 staging of “Susannah.” Photo by Mark Kiryluk

For its annual spring production, Lamont Opera Theatre is moving away from the classics it has performed in recent seasons — “Faust,” “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Gianni Schicchi” — and veering to the contemporary with a staging of “Susannah,” a 1955 opera by American composer Carlisle Floyd. Running April 18–21 at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts, the piece is a collaboration between the opera program and the Lamont Symphony Orchestra, which will perform the score live.

“It’s very dramatic and yet very approachable, because the musical language uses a lot of folk tunes, a lot of hymns,” says Lamont Opera Director Kenneth Cox. “It’s a combination of musical simplicity and, at times, musical complexity.”

Colored by the darkness surrounding the anti-Communist McCarthy hearings in the early 1950s, “Susannah” tells the story of its title character, an 18-year-old girl living with her brother in the small mountain town of New Hope Valley, Tenn. Targeted as a sinner by the town’s church elders and their wives, Susannah is seduced by a traveling preacher, which sets off a tragic chain of events.

“It sounds like the story is just black, but along the way there are beautiful tunes and moments of musical beauty,” Cox says. “I hadn’t done this show before, and I had heard from a number of people that it was one of their favorite scores. Now I’m understanding why. It’s just gripping.”

Graduate opera student Jillian Lee, one of the actresses double-cast for the lead role, says it’s a refreshing change of pace to do a modern work, in English, by a living composer — even if it does throw cast and orchestra a few curve balls.

“We talk all the time about how this is the first opera that Carlyle Floyd wrote, and we’re shocked at times what he’s able to do with the music and what’s going on,” she says. “The more simplistic music, especially when she’s singing and she’s just being pure-hearted — her thoughts are very simple and pure and innocent, and then you hear this undertone of music that’s very complex and very difficult, and the text, the things that are being said, you realize also have that depth and complexity. There’s this element of theme in the music that also drives that home.”

“Susannah” plays at 7:30 p.m. April 18–20 and 2:30 p.m. April 21 at the Newman Center; tickets are $11–$30; visit to purchase tickets.

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