Carlisle Floyd Discusses Composing, the NEA, and Young Opera Composers
Mark McLaren, Editor in Chief, March 8, 2017
The composer Carlisle Floyd was in New York recently for the city’s premiere of his latest opera, Prince of Players. Mr. Floyd, who is ninety, has composed opera for seven decades. Speaking with a light southern drawl, Floyd is warm and welcoming. He is sharp and quick witted, a wit he uses to gently connect in conversation.
In this, the second of a two-part series, Floyd discusses his compositional process, the state of the National Endowment for the Arts, and young opera composers to watch.
MM: As you were beginning your composing, who would you suggest were the big influences on you musically?
CF: [Pause] I hate to say this, but I’m not conscious of any. I never tried to imitate. What’s the word for it… I inherently had my own voice and wrote what I wanted, and that happened to be enough.
MM: Would you say that over the twelve operas that you’ve done, would you say that your voice has changed at all?
CF: Yeah, I think it’s changed some, but not radically.
MM: And in what way has it changed?
CF: It’s probably a wider harmonic palette. And it also depends on the opera. Some of them have a wider palette harmonically. Orchestrationally is the way of operating in change. But you don’t think of that in relation to a composer’s idiom, although it is a part of it.
But I would say that I don’t think my idiom has changed all that much. Now I didn’t want to do the exact same thing over and over again. So I think it’s widened. And I’m always looking for different sounds that please me or that I feel are appropriate in an opera for a scene or an aria, or for just plain scene painting.
MM: When you sit down with a blank page, those first moments, what two or three words would describe your emotions at that point?
CF: [Laughs] He’s a devil! It’s mostly waiting for something to come into the head. (I meant the devil remark as a compliment.)
I think you have to do a lot of conscious thinking first. And I think you will have to know precisely what kind of music you want for a particular given situation, and then the rest of it… Well, you feed the conscious mind, because the whole thing is ultimately in the unconscious when you get around to actually writing. I think that if you are the kind of composer that I am, and most composers are I think, you trust your instincts. Because nobody has your instincts. It may seem so, but nobody does really. You can say, “Well, you sound like Rachmaninoff,” and well, that would be pure accident.
I’ll tell you what I tell young composers: Be very conscious of what you want – what quality. I use the term latinta, which is Verdi’s term for the color of a scene. And he always wanted to know what was the color of the scene. The color of the scene then translates into the musical sound. What is going to help evoke that musically?
And if you’re a composer for the theater, which I hope I am, you are very loyal to that. And you realize that is your first obligation. It is to do the coloring, and everything contributes and adds into that, that is the first consideration. Once you get that in a musical idea, you can go with it. What takes time is finding the musical idea that you think projects that.
But it all comes back to latinta. I mean, I don’t see any reason to qualify that after all these years. With me and certainly Verdi exploring it to the nth degree. If you don’t have an instinct for that color and the color you want for that scene, dramatically what are you dealing with, then it can become quite clinical at that point.
If a composer comes to me and they say that they’re stuck, my first question to them is “what’s the color of the scene?” And what does that suggest in terms of rhythm, in terms of harmony, in terms of melodic lines, that furthers that particular color? Because it’s a very precise endeavor, writing for the operatic stage. I mean, if you’re successful. It’s not somewhat, it’s exactly. The precise emotional content that you want is based on that latinta.
MM: Is there an overarching characteristic to the stories that you choose to set? What do you look for when you’re looking for your next libretto?
CF: At this point in my life, I know pretty well what I need in a libretto. And certainly, one of those things is crisis, which this opera (Prince of Players) is all about. Which led me to this opera as soon as I saw the movie. Crisis is one of the basics. Without crisis, you don’t have the tension that you have to have, and which gives you your base. Once you have that, then that should suggest music. Or a musical quality. So that’s what I’m looking for.
Opera is the atmosphere of anything but everyday. You don’t want everyday. It has to be the day that did this, or showed that. It’s not two old ladies sitting around a coffee table trading gossip. It may be that, but that gossip must be loaded. And must carry forward something that is at the heart of the whole piece. And I think that that is the most important thing, that the libretto provides you with that.
MM: You were writing in exciting times. Talk to me a little bit about your colleagues, and was there a fraternity of you opera composers in the U.S.? Did you speak a lot?
CF: No, no. I think you said “hello.” Cordially. [Laughs] There were too few of us. And there still are.
MM: Well speak to that, who’s exciting you now, are there young composers out there writing for opera that you’re particularly excited about?
CF: [Pause] I haven’t seen his work, but I have a feeling that I would really like it, and that’s Kevin Puts. Who has recently had a big success with Silent Night. And I have an idea from everything that I’ve read that I would very much like what he did. He seems to be very with it in understanding a dramatic situation and furthering it on stage. And being able to write orchestral music that supports that. I think he’s the most promising of the ones that have come out, at least as far as I can tell.
Although there are a lot of them coming out these days.
MM: And you feel that it is a healthy time for opera.
CF: The healthiest. That I’ve seen. It has to coincide with these financial resources to put them on the stage. But that also has changed a great deal since my beginnings. There is a great deal more support and so many companies. Well look at the number of companies there are now.
MM: Speaking of funding, do you have any thoughts on National Endowment for the Arts, and Humanities?
CF: Well, I’m all for it.
MM: Do you think they will be around? Are you at all concerned?
CF: I would think it would be really questionable. But it would be a huge loss. I worked with the Endowment for a good bit, and was in on it from the very beginning. And this whole idea of endowment support of the arts was very new and also had a great deal of support and excitement about. And it’s just something that has become very natural for us.
The idea of doing without it…I was President of a group from the National Endowment for the Arts, and people told me, “You give me $15,000 and we generate $150,000. If you give that with the Endowment, that will always produce matching funds or support.” These funds also recognize those companies that were really doing good work, and those companies that needed support particularly. But I don’t know for how much longer.
MM: Just two more questions, and this is a difficult one. Is there a favorite Carlisle Floyd opera for Carlisle Floyd?
CF: [Pause] Well let’s just say that Of Mice and Men is about as good as I’ve done.
MM: Very good. I think that’s a beautiful work as well. I saw it in the City Opera production. And how about a non-Carlisle Floyd opera?
CF: Do you mean classical opera?
MM: Yeah, just one that you didn’t compose. Is there one out there that you are particularly fond of?
CF: Well, Peter Grimes I admire very much. And to my way of thinking, he (Benjamin Britten) never came to that same level again. It’s a magnificent opera.
MM: Do you think there are similarities in your compositional styles?
CF: I don’t think he’d think so. [Laughs] And I’m not conscious. There might be, but we’ll let people like you find them!
MM: Alright, then that’s our task. I think that about does it. We appreciate your time, this has been a real pleasure. Is there anything else you’d like to say to us?
CF: I can’t think of anything right now, I was too concerned about giving you a decent answer, to think about something I’d like to say! [laughs].
Part one of ZEALnyc’s interview with Carlisle Floyd, in which he discusses his latest opera Prince of Players, the early life of his opera Susannah and his work with soprano Phyllis Curtin, can be found here.
Cover: Carlisle Floyd; photo: Jim Caldwell.