Carlisle Floyd is one of the foremost composers and librettists of opera in the United States today. Born in 1926, Floyd earned B.M. and M.M. degrees in piano and composition with Ernst Bacon at Syracuse University, studying piano additionally with Sidney Foster and, at the Aspen Institute, with Rudolf Firkusny. He began his teaching career in 1947 at Florida State University, remaining there until 1976, when he accepted the prestigious M. D. Anderson Professorship in the University of Houston. In addition, he is co-founder with David Gockley of the Houston Opera Studio, a training and performance program for young singers and coaches-accompanists, jointly created by the University of Houston and Houston Grand Opera.
Floyd’s operas are regularly performed in this country and in Europe; at least two of them have entered the permanent operatic repertoire. He first achieved national prominence with the New York premiere of his opera, Susannah, by the New York City Opera in 1956 after its world premiere at Florida State University in 1955. In 1957 it won its composer the New York Music Critic’s Circle Award and subsequently was chosen to be America’s official operatic entry at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. In 1966 it was the only contemporary opera to be included in the inaugural season of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Company. In the years since its premiere it has been seen in every major American city as well as in England and Germany, and has been produced countless times by professional companies as well as in universities and colleges; the opera has had four separate productions and revivals by the New York City Opera alone since its premiere there. In 1993, the Lyric Opera of Chicago mounted a new production of the opera with Renee Fleming and Samuel Ramey in the leading roles. The following year, Virgin Classics issued a recording featuring Kent Nagano conducting the Lyon Opera Orchestra and Chorus with Cheryl Studer, Samuel Ramey, and Jerry Hadley in the principal roles. The release won international acclaim and a Grammy for Best Opera Recording, an honor rarely given to a work by a living composer. In March 1999, Susannah made its Metropolitan Opera debut featuring Renee Fleming, Samuel Ramey, and Jerry Hadley.
Of Mice and Men is Floyd’s other most often performed work. In the 1998-99 season alone it was presented by New York City Opera, Utah Opera, San Diego Opera, and Cleveland Opera. Based on the Steinbeck novel, it was commissioned by the Ford Foundation and was given its premiere by the Seattle Opera in 1970. It has also been produced in Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Miami, Cincinnati, and Boston, ran for two weeks at the Kennedy Center, and enjoyed an extraordinary success at Ireland’s famed Wexford Festival where it was broadcast live over the BBC. In June 1976 it was performed by the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague where audiences saw their country’s official operatic salute to America’s bicentennial.
Floyd’s more recent operas, Bilby’s Doll (1976) and Willie Stark (1981), based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel, All The King’s Men, were both commissioned and produced by the Houston Grand Opera, the latter in association with the Kennedy Center where again it was performed in a limited run. A televised version of the world premiere production of Willie Stark opened WNET’s Great Performances Series on the PBS network in September of 1981 and was shown again two years later. In 1990 he completed a new version of The Passion of Jonathan Wade, initially commissioned by the Ford Foundation for the New York City Opera which gave it its world premiere in 1962. The new version, which involved extensive revision of the libretto as well as a virtually new musical score, was a co-commission of the Houston Grand Opera and the Greater Miami Opera, and had its world premiere in Houston in January 1991, followed by performances in Miami in March, San Diego in April, and Seattle in November of 1992. The production, designed by renowned designer Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, was staged by the librettist-composer. Floyd's latest opera, Cold Sassy Tree, received its premiere to widespread acclaim at Houston Grand Opera in April 2000.
Recently, the composer has gained increasing attention for his non-operatic works. 1993 saw the New York premiere of Floyd’s orchestral song cycle, Citizen of Paradise, based on poems and letters of Emily Dickinson, given by the young leading mezzo-soprano of the Metropolitan Opera, Suzanne Mentzer. Floyd also completed a large-scale work for chorus, bass-baritone soloist, and orchestra entitled A Time to Dance, commissioned by the American Choral Directors Association and performed by the famed Westminster Choir and the San Antonio Symphony at the Association’s Biennial Convention in March 1994.
Floyd has been the recipient of a number of honors and awards: a Guggenheim Fellowship (1956); Citation of Merit from the National Association of American Conductors and Composers (1957); the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Nation Award from the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce (1959); the distinguished professor of Florida State University Award (1964); a Resolution of Appreciation by the State of Florida Legislature (1972); selected as one of Florida’s first group of citizens designated as Patriots for the Bicentennial; an honorary doctorate from Dickinson College (1983); and the National Opera Institute’s Award for Service to American Opera, the highest honor the institute bestows, also in 1983. He served on the Music Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1974-80 and was the first chairman of the Opera/Musical Theater Panel when that program was created by the Endowment in 1976. Major commissions have come from the Ford Foundation and the Kennedy Center Foundation, as well as from the New York City, Santa Fe, Houston, and Greater Miami opera companies.