The Catholic University of America

Oct. 27, 2014 

Music School to Present Apocryphal Tale of Susannah

  Collaborative piano performance major Nathan Blair conducting a rehearsal last year of Hansel and Gretel.

Catholic University’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music presents American composer Carlisle Floyd’s apocryphal tale of Susannah in an intimate staging in Ward Recital Hall Nov. 20 through 23.

Based on the story of Susanna and the elders, the production is directed by James Hampton, clinical assistant professor of voice who joined the music school faculty at the start of the academic year, with senior Nathan Blair conducting a newly licensed arrangement for piano, harp, and percussion by Brian Rice, D.M.A. 2013.

The production is Hampton’s first at Catholic University as a full-time faculty member and Rice’s second doing the arrangement.

Susannah marks Blair’s third time conducting a music school opera, “a remarkable achievement for an undergraduate student,” notes Hampton. Last year, Blair conducted Don Giovanni and Hansel and Gretel.

In 2008, Hampton directed the Washington, D.C., area premiere of Ned Rorem’s opera Our Town at CUA. In a review of that production, The Washington Post applauded Hampton’s direction as “pungent” and “tightly paced.” Rice is a D.C area composer who provided the chamber arrangement for the 2012 production of The Merry Widow at CUA.

Grayson Wagstaff, dean of music, notes that Hampton and Rice bring their expertise to a production of “one of the most performed American operas, perhaps just second to Porgy and Bess. With their skills and those of our incredibly talented students, this evocative American opera will come to life in Ward Recital Hall.”

Hampton’s previous directing credits include the Dallas Opera, the Mostly Opera Theater, The University of Texas at Austin, and East Carolina University.

“As a full-time opera director for the music school, I can offer our students guidance and instruction for the acting piece of a performance,” Hampton notes. “Our students have a thirst for knowledge about the industry,” he says. “They want to develop their craft. I’m available to help them during lessons, in class, and in rehearsal.”

Rice describes the creation of the arrangement for Susannah as “a wonderful challenge.” He notes that the harp, “with its rustic quality, is a wonderful complement to the opera’s Appalachian melodies and the Appalachian accents of the performers. It complements the character of the opera and provides a nice change from the piano.”

The story of Susanna and the elders chronicles the plight of a fair Hebrew wife who is falsely accused of promiscuity by two lecherous elders. In the opera, 18-year-old Susannah Polk is an innocent young woman who is targeted as a sinner in the small mountain town of New Hope Valley, Tenn.

Carlisle Floyd wrote the libretto and music for Susannah while a member of the piano faculty at Florida State University. The opera was awarded the New York Music Critics Circle Award for Best New Opera in 1956 and was chosen to represent American music and culture at the World's Fair at Brussels in 1958.

Some experts speculate that the opera was inspired by McCarthyism, a period of heightened fear of communism in the United States during the early 1950s. Stage director Hampton says that he has mentioned the McCarthyism connection to his students “in passing because I want them to be aware of the reference. But I think there’s also a strong message about bullying, which is a timeless issue.”

Hampton also notes that the opera features “two of the most glorious arias ever written” in English for a soprano. “Ain’t it a Pretty Night,” with its sweeping and evocative phrases, reveals Susannah’s conflict — yearning for the big city but hesitating when she thinks about leaving her hometown, he says. “It’s a big decision that a lot of us have to make. Do we stay where we’re comfortable or venture out on our own?”

“The Trees on the Mountain” — the soaring and melancholy aria in Act II — is a song that Susannah’s mother used to sing to the young woman and her brother before they were orphaned at an early age.

Performance dates and times for Susannah are Thursday, Nov. 20, Friday, Nov. 21, and Saturday, Nov. 22, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 23, at 2 p.m. Ward Recital Hall is located at 620 Michigan Ave., N.E., Washington, D.C.

Tickets are $20 for general admission; $15 for CUA alumni; $10 for seniors and students, and CUA faculty and staff; $5 for CUA students; and $5 for children under 10. For more information and to purchase tickets, contact the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at or 202-319-5416.

MEDIA: For more information, contact Katie Bahr or Katie Lee in the Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600 or



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