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musical drama in two acts

Music by Carlisle Floyd
Libretto by the composer
after the apocryphal Biblical Book of Susannah
About Susannah

Carlisle Floyd's best known opera, Susannah is a retelling of the Book of Susannah set in rural Tennessee. Written in response to the McCarthyism rampant at the time of its composition, it has become one of the few American operas to gain a foothold in the repretoire of both American and international companies.

Cast of Characters
Susannah Polk, s Sam Polk, t
Olin Blitch, bar Little Bat McLean
Elder McLean Elder Gleaton
Elder Hayes Elder Ott
Mrs. MacLean Mrs. Gleaton
Mrs. Hayes Mrs. Ott
Townspeople, Congregation

In New Hope Valley, Tennessee, the town is gathered for a dance the day before an itinerant preacher is supposed to arrive for a revival meeting. Susannah Polk, an attractive but innocent girl of nineteen, is getting a lot of attention from the men; one of the wives, Mrs. McLean, predicts that she will come to no good. ("She's a shameless girl, she is") The Reverend Olin Blitch arrives, a day early ("I am the reverend Olin Blitch") who eventually joins the dancing and dances with Susannah.

Later that night, Susannah is talking on her porch to her friend, Little Bat. She looks at the stars and thinks about what it would be like to leave her home town and travel beyond the mountains. ("Ain't it a pretty night?") Her brother, Sam, returns, and Susannah goes to bed. The next morning, she is bathing in a creek on her farm when the elders, looking for a creek to hold baptisms in, spot her; shocked, they go to tell the church and the preacher; later, when Susannah arrives at a church picnic, she is told she is not welcome. She learns from Little Bat what has happened, and that the town is trumping up evidence against her. Sam tries to explain away what's happening, ("It's about the way people is made, I reckon") but Susannah is unable to understand; she bursts into tears.

A few days later, Sam is preparing to leave to check his traps. Susannah, although she worries that he will come back drunk, lets him go; as he leaves, he advises her to go to the prayer meeting and face the townspeople. She does; as she sits alone on the last bench, Blitch leads a rousing meeting. ("Are you saved from sin") Finally, Blitch tries to convince her to make a public confession, but instead she runs from the church. At home, she sings a sad folk song ("The trees on the mountains are cold and bare") Blitch arrives and tries to convince her to repent; as he is leaving, however, he turns back to Susannah and lets her know he is interested in more than her soul. ("I'm a lonely man, Susannah") Her spirit beaten down by the treatment the town has given her, Susannah lets him lead her inside the house.

The next day, Blitch is alone in the church, praying; he now knows that the stories the townspeople were telling were lies. He tries to convince some of the elders and their wives that she is innocent, but they refuse to listen to him. Sam returns home, drunk, and learns what has happened; he goes to the creek where Blitch is baptizing and shoots him. The townspeople, unable to catch him, instead come to the house, where Susannah is waiting, and threaten to run her out of town; she only laughs at them, and the crowd reluctantly retreats. Susannah has survived the town's attack, but at a terrible cost to her own innocence.

Performance History
World premiere production
Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida
February 24, 1955
Susannah Polk: Phyllis Curtin
Olin Blitch: Mack Harrell
New York premiere
New York City Opera, New York, New York
Susannah Polk: Phyllis Curtin
Olin Blitch: Mack Harrell
New York premiere
New York City Opera, New York, New York
Susannah Polk: Phyllis Curtin
Olin Blitch: Mack Harrell
European premiere
Brussels Exhibition, Brussels, Belgium
Houston Grand Opera, Houston, Texas
Susannah Polk: Nancy Gustafson
Olin Blitch: Samuel Ramey
Metropolitan Opera, New York, New York
Susannah Polk: Renee Fleming
Olin Blitch: Samuel Ramey
Discography Search for recordings of Susannah at Amazon.com

Carlisle Floyd: "Ain't it a pretty night" and "The trees on the mountain" from Susannah


Renee Fleming

I Want Magic! American Opera Arias

CD / Polygram 160567 (1998)

Carlisle Floyd



CD / Virgin 45039 (1994)

Carlisle Floyd: "Ain't it a pretty night" from Susannah


Phyllis Curtin

Opera Arias

CD / VAI 1152 (1998)

Carlisle Floyd

Susannah (live recording)


2 CD / VAI 1115 (1956)

Carlisle Floyd: "Ain't it a pretty night" from Susannah


Dawn Upshaw

The World So Wide

CD / Nonesuch 79458 (1998)

Bibliography Search for book about Susannah at Amazon.com

Carlisle Floyd: "Ain't it a pretty night" from Susannah

Carlisle Floyd: "The trees on the mountain" from Susannah


Boosey & Hawkes American Arias: Soprano

Boosey and Hawkes 2004

Carlisle Floyd: "Hear me, O Lord" from Susannah


Boosey & Hawkes American Arias: Bass

Boosey and Hawkes 2004

Last update: January 1, 2009