Some say American opera is a contradiction in terms. The U.S. may have given the world great jazz, but during the years when Europe was producing the greats that dominate public radio's daily programming, Americans were lagging behind. Classical music generally, never mind opera, was not our strength.

Until, that is, Carlisle Floyd (b. 1926) hit the scene. Hailed internationally as America's opera writer, Floyd premiered his first full-length opera at the University of Florida in 1955. Based loosely on an apocryphal addition to Daniel, Susannah was an instant hit.

Floyd—not unlike Aaron Copland in Appalachian Spring—succeeded in a European musical form because, rather than imitating Puccini, he drew his melodies from the folk tunes of his native South Carolina. Floyd has gone on to write a number of other arresting operas, including Wuthering Heights (1958); The Passion of Jonathan Wade (1962), which recounts the struggles of a Yankee in the post– Civil War South; Of Mice and Men (1970); Bilby's Doll (1976), based on the Esther Forbes novel about the witch hunts in Salem; and Willie Stark (1981), an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. But Susannah has remained the most popular, receiving over 800 performances worldwide since its Florida debut. Last spring marked Susannah's Met debut: the opera opened last March with a star-studded cast—Renee Fleming, Samuel Ramey, and Jerry Hadley—and, as usual, striking sets.

The music did not disappoint—the opening square dance scene alone justifies critics' initial praise in the 1950s—but the story did. Set in a small town in eastern Tennessee, Susannah opens with all the locals—churchgoers, of course—gathered together for ...

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