Obituary: American Opera Composer Carlisle Floyd Dies at 95

By Francisco Salazar

Famed composer Carlisle Floyd, who was considered one of the greatest American opera composers in history, has died at the age of 95.

Born on June 11, 1926, in Latta, South Carolina, he was the son of a Methodist minister. He began his musical studies in 1943 when he entered Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and studied piano under Ernst Bacon. He 1946 he transferred to Syracuse University when his piano teacher Bacon accepted a position at the university. After graduating from Syracuse, Floyd became part of the piano faculty at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he would work for thirty years.

At FSU, Floyd gained an interest in composition and eventually wrote his first opera “Slow Dusk” to his own libretto. The work was produced in Syracuse in 1949. In 1951 his second opera, “The Fugitives,” made its world premiere in Tallahassee.

In 1955, he premiered his third and best-known opera, “Susannah” at Florida State University with Phyllis Curtin in the title role and Mack Harrell as the Reverend Olin Blitch. The work would get its New York City Opera premiere the following year with Curtin and Norman Treigle under Erich Leinsdorf conducting. The work’s New York success would later take it to Brussels in 1958 as well as many major theaters. It would also become a signature for many renowned sopranos like Cheryl Studer, Patricia Racette, and Renée Fleming.

Floyd later composed “Wuthering Heights” for Santa Fe Opera, “The Passion of Jonathan Wade” for City Opera, and “The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair” for East Carolina College.

In 1970, his other well-known masterpiece, “Of Mice and Men” made its world premiere at the Seattle Opera and was later brought to New York City Opera and Austin Opera.

His final work “The Prince of Players” premiered in 2016 at the Houston Grand Opera and was conducted by Patrick Summers.

Throughout his career, his works would be performed at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Metropolitan Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and San Diego Opera, among others. He would also collaborate with such artist as Frank Corsaro, Phyllis Curtin, Renée Fleming, David Gockley, Mack Harrell, Robert Holton, Jack O’Brien, Harold Prince, Samuel Ramey, Julius Rudel, and Norman Treigle. He also mentored Mark Adamo, Matt Aucoin, Jake Heggie, Henry Mollicone, and Rufus Wainwright.

As an instructor, Floyd was co-founder of the Houston Opera Studio and accepted the M.D. Anderson Professorship at the University of Houston, a position he held until his retirement in 1996.

Floyd also received many awards such as the Guggenheim Fellowship, Citation of Merit from the National Association of American Conductors and Composers, Distinguished Professor of Florida State University Award, National Medal of Arts from the White House, National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honoree for lifetime work, and an Honorary Doctorate from Florida State University, among others.

He is survived by four nieces, his sister Ermine’s valiant daughters: Martha Matheny Solomon, Jane Floyd Matheny, Nancy Matheny Kitchin, and Harriett Olive Matheny.

A celebration of Floyd’s centennial is planned for 2026.