Washington University Opera to present Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah March 24-25

The Washington University Opera will present Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, which updates the biblical story of Susannah and the elders to 1940s Appalachia, at 8 p.m. March 24-25.

The performances are presented by the Department of Music in Arts & Sciences and will take place in Edison Theatre.

Set in New Hope Valley, Tenn., the story centers on the character of Susannah Polk, an attractive but innocent girl of 19, who is observed bathing by a group of male church elders. The men falsely accuse Susannah of sinfulness and “loose” behavior, ostracizing her from the life of the town.

“Susannah is a free spirit, attractive and lively, a target for hate and jealousy and the lust of the local menfolk,” said Jolly Stewart, director of Washington University Opera, who previously directed the piece for St. Louis’ Union Avenue Opera Theatre. (She also directed Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, based on the John Steinbeck novella, for Washington University Opera in 2004.) “The people of New Hope find it easy to condemn her for bathing in her own creek.”

Floyd wrote Susannah in 1955 as a direct response to the anti-communist witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Yet the opera is also informed by his experiences growing up in rural South Carolina as the son of a Methodist preacher, and many of its themes — hypocrisy, mistrust and misunderstanding — remain all too relevant today.

“Susannah speaks to so much that is still happening in the world around us,” Stewart said. “When we find ourselves unable to understand the strange, the different, the foreign, it is all too easy to allow hate instead of love — jealousy instead of appreciation, cruelty instead of kindness — to become the accepted norm.”

John Stewart, director of vocal activities in the music department, conducts the performance, which incorporates elements of square dance, folk song and revival hymns — music typical to rural Tennessee of the time. (Stewart once sang the role of Sam, Susannah’s brother, in a production at the New York City opera.)

The cast of 19 is led by Elise LaBarge, a master’s candidate in vocal performance, who sings the title role. Also starring are recent master’s graduates Adam Cromer as Susannah’s brother, Sam; Joseph Michels as Little Bat, a friend coaxed into giving false testimony; and Scott Levin as the Rev. Olin Blitch, who comes to Susannah’s defense (though for motives of his own).

Scott Kennebeck, Nathan Ruggles, Clark Sturdevant and Philip Touchette are featured as the elders. Megan Higgins, Debra Hillabrand, Jade Hornbaker and Stephanie Scherrer portray their vindictive wives. The Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra will serve as orchestra.

Floyd, who also serves as librettist for his operas, taught piano and composition for 30 years at Florida State University and later at the University of Houston.

Susannah has been staged more than 800 times, making it the most frequently performed American opera. In 1999, it was performed by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Other notable works by Floyd include Bilby’s Doll (1976), which examines the Salem witch trials; and the comedy Cold Sassy Tree, which premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 2000.

Tickets are $18; $12 for students, seniors and WUSTL faculty and staff; and $7 for WUSTL students.

For more information or to order tickets, call the Edison Theatre Box Office at 935-6543.