Carlisle Floyd’s 1955 American opera Susannah, which opens for a three-day run this week at the University of South Carolina’s Drayton Hall, could not be more contemporary — or ancient.
The title character is an attractive, innocent and impoverished young woman living in one of those idyllic Southern towns where square dancing and church suppers mask an undercurrent of resentment and hypocrisy.
Far from being an asset, Susannah’s beauty incites jealousy from the women and — when she is seen privately bathing — lust from the men, quickly leading to her becoming both an outcast and a victim of sexual assault. Adding further insult to injury, she gains no sympathy from the community, who regard her less as victim than perpetrator.
It’s a cycle of destruction that sounds all too common — whether on a college campus or replayed in a Congressional hearing — but the inspiration dates back thousands of years, to the Old Testament era story of Susanna and the Elders in the Apocrypha.
In the original story, a bathing young wife finds herself at the mercy of a couple of powerful voyeurs. When she refuses their advances, they set out to ruin her reputation — and nearly succeed until the intercession of the prophet Daniel reverses the community’s rush to judgment.
The story, which has inspired countless painters and poets ever since, had an appeal to Floyd that may have reflected the mid-1950s paranoia of the McCarthy Era.
As a Latta-born, Converse College-educated South Carolina native, Floyd drew from the world he knew. Set in the fictional town of New Hope, Tennessee, the opera is steeped in the tribalism, overwrought religious zeal and misogyny of small town Southern life.
That was part of the draw for USC Director of Opera Studies Ellen Schlaefer, but not the main one.
“The No. 1 appeal is it’s an iconic American opera,” she says. “I think it’s a piece about community and how community reacts to situations and that has an appeal this time to how we were doing it, and it sparked discussions among students, which I think is great.”
Schlaefer says the original story from the Book of Daniel was about abuse of power “as well as the power of a community to forgive or not.”
But where the original story ends with Susanna being exonerated as her accusers are punished, the opera takes a much darker, perhaps more realistic turn.
“It is interesting now to look at it through the lens of the #MeToo movement,” Schlaefer offers. “It’s just been a great jumping-off point for our students to talk about those types of situations.”
Catherine Howland, who is sharing the lead role with Melissa Starkweather, says that the part has involved discovery from a lot of different angles.
“One of the things that has been the most difficult about Susannah is that she goes through a lot in this show,” she tells Free Times. “Discovering the emotional transformation and the struggles that she goes through has probably been the biggest challenge of being in the show, but it’s been a challenge that I’ve enjoyed.”
For all its tragedy, Susannah is also a spirited and emotionally involving work of musical theater, with lively and interesting characters, two dynamic arias — “Ain’t It a Pretty Night” and the melancholy “The Trees on the Mountain” — and a very non-operatic tempo. The standard running time is a little over 90 minutes.
“The musical language is very approachable,” says Musical Director Neal Casey. “Some operas have the same pacing throughout and make it difficult to learn, but this one has a lot of variety.”
For Schlaefer, part of the reason for the continuing popularity of Susannah is also that it wears its age well.
“It’s got a lot of life for something that’s 64 years old,” she says.
Something similar might also be said for the 93-year-old author. Floyd, widely regarded as the dean of American opera, wrote Susannah at the tender age of 28 and continues to be both a productive artist and an inspiration.
Schaefer notes that when Floyd started out, the opera tradition was predominantly European.
“Now we have a great wealth of operas written by American composers,” she says. “What Carlisle did in the mid-20th century, and to then keep writing and teaching and everything, is a testament to his work, and a testament to the water he drank in Latta, South Carolina.”
Where: Drayton Hall Theatre, 1214 College St.
When: Nov. 1-3
Price: $25 ($20 seniors, USC faculty and staff, military; $10 students)