Ash Lawn's "Susannah"
11:35 am
Tue July 8, 2014

Opera Set in Appalachia

Many operas are set in Europe – sung in Italian or German, but the Ash Lawn Opera in Charlottesville plans to bring the art form closer to home with a performance of Susannah -- a story set in Appalachia. 

Susannah is a role prized by sopranos like Renee Flemming, who performed it at the Met.  Critics described composer Carlisle Floyd as the American Pucini for the passionate lyrics and music he wrote.  He tells the story of a beautiful woman who lives in a small town – New Hope Valley, Tennessee.  She sings of her longing to leave and make something of her life.

“I aim to get out of this valley someday, to find out for myself – to see all them tall buildings and all them street lights, and to be one of those folks myself.”

That’s Michelle Kreisel, general and artistic director for Ash Lawn.  She loves this opera, and even though she grew up in Los Angeles, she can relate to Susannah.

“I wanted to live in New York.  I wanted to live in Paris.  I wanted to be one of those folks myself.”

The story actually has classic roots in the Biblical account of Susannah and the Elders.

“The elders see her bathing in the creek, which was common – that’s what people did, and so they projected their own lust for her on her and thought she was a loose woman, and she was told to go to the church revival and confess her sins, but she had no sins, so she fled.”

The preacher follows Susannah home and takes advantage of her – making matters even worse.  Kreisel says Floyd did a remarkable job of telling this story from a woman’s point of view, and he clearly understood the region where the story was set.

He grew up in the South.  His first job, as a piano teacher, was at Florida State University, and the opera was composed for Florida State University during the McCarthy Era, so the story really reflects the witch hunt that was felt among college intellectuals, where you were accused of a crime you didn’t commit, and even if you did commit it, you  didn’t see it as a crime.”

To promote the show, Kreisel scheduled pop-up performances in Charlottesville and she took some cast members south to the University of Virginia at Wise, where music students took part in a master class.

Kreisel critiqued each student, then invited them to join the show’s chorus in a one-time performance that won rave reviews from locals.

“The leading lady was absolutely phenomenal, and it gave me chills.  The lead was amazing.  The lead’s brother on stage was amazing, and the chorus was awesome.  I was intrigued to hear about it and wanted to see an opera brought to life in an Appalachian city.”

And Adjunct Professor Amber Burke says it was a powerful experience for the school’s music majors.

“I think the students had a really great time.  I mean we learned to square dance in an hour and performed it the next day.  We got to meet a lot of great new people from all over the country – singers, directors and conductors, and we don’t get that very often.”

Ash Lawn is now rehearsing for performances at the The Paramount Theater of Charlottesville on July 11, 13 and 16. 

Composer Carlisle Floyd provided Ash Lawn with a greeting in anticipation of the production, you can see the video here: