In 1954, Carlisle Floyd finished his first major opera, Susannah, when he was 27. The works eventually became the most produced of American operas. By updating and transplanting the apocryphal tale of Susannah and the Elders to the Tennessee hills, Floyd fashioned a beguiling musical parable, a wry indictment of small=town pettiness and hyprocrisy. Susannah Polk, an innocent waif, is the object of the suppressed desire of the town’s church elders, and her nubile beauty provokes the jealous rage of their wives. When she is seen bathing in the nude, all hell breaks loose. She is condemned as a temptress, then a charismatic preacher tries to seduce her, supposedly to confirm her moral depravity. In the 50s the opera’s themes of bigotry, oppressive puritanism, and the meanness of a patriarchy towards its women–all potent strains in American literature since Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Christian Steiner.