President Bush has recognized the contributions of composer and librettist Carlisle Floyd to American cultural life with a National Medal of Arts. Floyd, one of eight artists and arts patrons so recognized this year, was in Washington, D.C., this afternoon for the official presentation of the award in the Oval Office.
Speaking from his hotel room this morning, Floyd said he was stunned when NEA Chairman Dana Gioia first called with the news. “It’s the last thing in the world I expected,” Floyd said. “As a matter of fact, I told [Gioia] at dinner last night that I thought he was calling to ask me to be on a [NEA] panel. It never occurred to me that it was this remarkable honor.”
Floyd is most widely known for penning operas that draw on American folk and religious music traditions, such as Susannah (which has had four productions by the New York City Opera alone since its premiere there in 1956) and Of Mice and Men based on John Steinbeck’s classic tale. A novel was once again the muse for Floyd’s most recent operatic production, Cold Sassy Tree, which received its premiere at Houston Grand Opera in April 2000. The Virgin Classics recording of Susannah won a Grammy for Best Opera Recording in 1995.
Though there is often talk about the diminishing place for serious music in modern America, Floyd is not so pessimistic. In his experience, serious music is alive and well. “Certainly my career has continued to flourish, so there’s still an audience out there. We can’t compete with the rock-and-rollers or the entertainment side, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not validity in what we do.”
Born in 1926, Floyd earned degrees in piano and composition at Syracuse University. His teaching career has included positions at Florida State University and the University of Houston. In addition, he is a co-founder of the Houston Opera Studio, a training and performance program for young artists.
Floyd has also composed a number of non-operatic works such as the orchestral song cycle, Citizen of Paradise, based on poems and letters of Emily Dickinson, and A Time to Dance, a large-scale work for chorus, bass-baritone soloist, and orchestra.
These days Floyd spends much of his time keeping up with performances of his work, which is published by Boosey & Hawkes. “I suppose you could call that looking after the children,” he said with a laugh.