An American Tragedy 

A fiery new production of Susannah hooks young audiences with beautiful melodies - and violence.

According to Michael Morgan, artistic and music director of Walnut Creek's Festival Opera, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah is quite possibly the most performed of all American operas.

"It has an immediately gripping story, and original, soaring melodies written in a style that makes you feel as though they're authentic folk music," explains the 42-year-old conductor, who also conducts the Oakland East Bay Symphony and Sacramento Philharmonic. "Between the soprano aria "Ain't It a Pretty Night' and some of the pseudo-hymns the congregation sings, it's full of the kind of really beautiful melodies that stick in your head and you can't get them out."

Written in 1956, and set in rural Tennessee in the "recent past," the opera is a story of religious intolerance. Susannah, whom Morgan describes as "a perfectly good person," is rejected by the community for "not paying particular attention to community standards. They're not particularly evil people; rather, they're insulated and afraid of anyone who doesn't conform. After they project all kinds of evil onto Susannah, she ends up being sexually violated by the new preacher who has come to town -- he was supposed to be the most religious of all of them, and the one who could save them from their sins. "

Morgan has equal praise for the physical set, which features the shadow of the church hovering at different angles in the background throughout the story, and for the cast. The Susannah, soprano Cynthia Clayton, has sung with New York City Opera and Opera San Jose. After she sang Barber's great Knoxville, Summer of 1915 with OEBS, Morgan realized that "American music was something she was born to sing. When I asked her to perform Susannah, she said she would kill to do the role."

Clayton's husband Hector Vasquez sings the role of the sinful Rev. Olin Blitch. "Hector has an amazing ability to become whatever role he is singing," says Morgan of the baritone who has sung with the Met and San Francisco Opera. Add in tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who has sung with Dallas Opera and Santa Fe Opera.

The production opens Saturday night for a four- performance run in Walnut Creek's comfortable Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts. Call 925-943-7469 for information.

Every summer, the eleven-year-old Festival Opera Company also participates in the music camp of Oakland's Allen Temple Baptist Church. Last summer, it bused camp kids into a ninety-minute dress rehearsal of Massenet's Werther. According to Morgan, when Werther killed himself, the kids were so moved that they were clutching each other. They became instant fans, wishing to stay as long as possible and return for the actual performance.

"Most opera companies invite young people to see Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, which is much harder to grasp than Werther or Susannah. We assume educating kids requires tuneful comedies, but they're more drawn to tragedies because they have relevance to real life. Susannah is the kind of story we need to bring to kids. "

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