Phi Mu Alpha mourns the passing of our Brother Carlisle Floyd, the opera composer extraordinaire deemed by many to be the “Father of American Opera,” who sounded the Final Chord on Thursday, September 30, 2021, at the age of 95.
Among the leading 20th-century American opera composers, Floyd is often cited with Ned Rorem, Philip Glass, John Coolidge Adams, the Italian-American Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, and others whose works have joined the standard repertory.
Carlisle Floyd was born in 1926, in Latta, South Carolina. His father was a Methodist Minister. In 1943 Floyd entered Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and studied piano under Ernst Bacon (Rho Chapter – American Conservatory of Music – 1920). When Bacon accepted a position at Syracuse University in New York, Floyd followed him there and earned a Bachelor of Music in 1946. The following year, Floyd became part of the piano faculty at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He remained there until 1976 when he accepted the prestigious M. D. Anderson Professorship at the University of Houston. In addition, he was co-founder with David Gockley of the Houston Opera Studio, jointly created by the University of Houston and Houston Grand Opera.
At 28 years old, Floyd first achieved national prominence with the New York premiere of his opera Susannah (1953–54) by the New York City Opera in 1956. In 1957 it won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award and subsequently was chosen to be America’s official operatic entry at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. That same year, Floyd was initiated into Phi Mu Alpha by the Epsilon Iota Chapter at Florida State University.
His second opera, Wuthering Heights, premiered at Santa Fe Opera in 1958 and continues to have life decades later—a critically acclaimed recording, released by The Florentine Opera in June 2016 on Reference Recordings, was listed in Opera News’ 10 Best Opera Recordings of 2016. “It contains some beautiful music that deserves to be heard,” said critic Rebecca Paller.
Based on the Steinbeck novella, Of Mice and Men (1969) is another of Floyd’s most performed works throughout the world. It was commissioned by the Ford Foundation and was given its premiere by the Seattle Opera in 1970.
Bilby’s Doll (1976) and Willie Stark (1981) were commissioned and produced by the Houston Grand Opera, the latter in association with the Kennedy Center. 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.
Cold Sassy Tree (2000) received its premiere at Houston Grand Opera in April 2000. Subsequently, it has been performed by Austin Lyric Opera, Central City Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Opera Carolina, Opera Omaha, San Diego Opera, Utah Opera, and Atlanta Opera.
Floyd’s most recent opera, Prince of Players, premiered in March 2016 as a chamber opera by the Houston Grand Opera. The world premiere live recording of the opera by Florentine Opera, Milwaukee Symphony, and William Boggs on Reference Recordings was nominated for two GRAMMY Awards in 2021: Best Opera Recording and Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
His non-operatic works include the orchestral song cycle Citizen of Paradise (1984), which received its New York premiere with world-renowned mezzo-soprano Suzanne Mentzer. A Time to Dance (1993), his large-scale work for chorus, bass-baritone soloist, and orchestra, was commissioned by the American Choral Directors Association.
Among Floyd’s numerous awards and honors are a Guggenheim Fellowship (1956); Citation of Merit from the National Association of American Conductors and Composers (1957); National Opera Institute’s Award for Service to American Opera (1983); and the National Medal of Arts in a ceremony at the White House (2004). In 2008, Floyd was one of four honorees—and the only composer—to be included in the inaugural National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors. Additionally, 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.
In 2001, Floyd was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame (2011) and the Florida Artist Hall of Fame (2015). He has also been awarded six honorary doctorates.
In 2012, Brother Floyd was presented with Phi Mu Alpha’s Charles E. Lutton Man of Music Award at our 54th National Convention held in Orlando, Florida. He has subsequently been named a Signature Sinfonian.
During the 2015–16 season, Floyd partnered with Opera America to produce “Masters at Work,” a live, interactive webcast exploring the making of an opera.
Rest in Peace, Brother. Thank you for all the music that you brought to the world. You will be missed.