TPAC | April 6–8
WORDS Gina Piccalo
PHOTOGRAPHY Brian Biery
There are few operas more culturally relevant today than the Southern Gothic parable Susannah, performed by Nashville Opera this month.
This piece of McCarthy-era Americana so precisely echoes the contemporary tragedies of fake news and #MeToo, it could easily have been written today. Yet the timing of its revival is strictly coincidental. Susannah was added to Nashville Opera’s schedule way back in early 2016, long before the Zeitgeist deemed its themes worthy of review.
“It’s about people that take the word of God and then twist it to fit their own agenda. I hope this helps open a dialogue.”
“This is a very important piece in the things it has to say,” the opera’s CEO and artistic director, John Hoomes, says. “It’s about people that take the word of God and then twist it to fit their own agenda. That can be very dangerous. I hope this helps open a dialogue.”
Inspired by the Biblical story of Susannah and the Elders, Carlisle Floyd wrote the opera in the 1950s while on the Florida State University faculty. Through the decades, it has become one of the most performed operas in America.
In the piece, Susannah is an orphaned teenaged beauty, unjustly demonized by the self-righteous elders of her small town. Jealousy, hypocrisy, and ignorance corrupt her innocence, and through a series of misunderstandings the opera turns tragic and dark.It’s a challenging performance for audience and cast, especially for star Chelsea Basler, the Grammy Award- nominated soprano who plays Susannah. Not only does the material demand emotional depth, but the music, a blend of Appalachian folk melodies and lush classical pieces, requires real technique to sing.
“It sounds a little like Puccini in Appalachia,” says Hoomes. “It takes someone not afraid of the emotional journey the character goes through.”
This is the second time the Nashville Opera has presented Susannah since its local debut in 2001. This time around, Hoomes says, the production features a more elaborate staging with a shape-shifting backdrop of the mountains of East Tennessee.
In Basler, Susannah has an experienced star who performed the role twice and studied with its composer and Phyllis Curtin, the New York City Opera soprano who originated it.“A lot of times, I play the ingénue or roles where I’m a princess that falls in love with a prince after seeing him for a day,” says Basler. “For Susannah—she’s real. Things happen to her. She reacts to them. She feels her feelings.”
Nashville Opera stages Susannah at TPAC’s Polk Theater April 6–8. Hoomes will host a talk about the opera before each performance. For more information, visit www.nashvilleopera.org.