Music and Libretto by Carlisle Floyd

The story | About the opera

The story:

Time: The Present
Place: New Hope Valley, Tennessee


It is a summer night, and the people of New Hope Valley have gathered for a square dance. Susannah Polk, who is prettier than the other girls, is obviously the center of attention. The Church Elders are attracted to Susannah while their wives discuss the new preacher, Olin Blitch, whom they expect to arrive in the morning. The wives turn their attention to Susannah, and voice their disapproval of her pretty face, her dress, and her manner. The dancing comes to a stop when Blitch arrives. He eventually joins the dancing and dances with Susannah.

Later that evening, Susannah returns to the Polk farmhouse, followed by simple-minded Little Bat McLean. He adores Susannah, but he is afraid of her brother Sam. As Susannah sings of the beauty of the night, Sam returns home. Little Bat runs off at the sight of him, while Susannah tells Sam about the dance.

The following morning, as the four Elders search for an appropriate spot for a baptismal pool, they come upon Susannah bathing naked in the creek. They freeze in shock and outrage, and return to town, proclaiming her wrongdoing.

That evening, there is a picnic supper at the church. The entire town condemns Susannah's actions at the creek. Susannah enters quietly and is stunned when no one will speak to her. The Elder McLean informs her that she is not welcome, and Susannah retreats in confusion.

Later, when Susannah is back at the Polk house, Little Bat enters. He tells her that the Elders have spread the word that they saw her bathing naked in the creek, and they intend to run her out of the church and maybe even the valley. Susannah, who has always bathed there, cannot understand what she did wrong, but Little Bat also reveals that the Elders forced him to "confess" that he had been involved with her. Incensed by his lie, she angrily sends him away. Susannah notices that Sam has appeared and has heard the whole story. He tries to calm her by explaining away what has happened, but Susannah is unable to understand, and bursts into tears.


The following Friday morning, Sam informs his sister what the community wants: a public confession. She replies she has nothing to confess, though she is beginning to wonder whether maybe the devil is tempting her somehow, without her knowledge. The creek is now being used for baptisms, and Blitch has asked her to come to a prayer meeting that evening; Sam thinks she should go to show that she is not afraid, but she feels unable to face public contempt. Sam says he has to empty his traps on the other side of the mountain but will be back the next day, and tells her he will feel better if she is with the community.

That evening Susannah attends the New Hope Church prayer meeting, sitting alone on the last bench. The Reverend Blitch preaches a terrifying sermon. The choir sings, and above the voices, Blitch urges all sinners to come forward. After a number of people go up to him, he stops the singing and speaks of the one sinner who has not approached him. The congregation turns and stares at Susannah. Blitch concentrates his attention on her and she slowly moves forward, transfixed. As she comes to a stop before him, he smiles triumphantly. The spell breaks, and Susannah rushes from the church, refusing to "repent."

An hour later, at the Polk farm, Susannah recalls a folk-like song her mother taught her that reflects her loneliness and sorrow. Blitch arrives, and tells Susannah that he has come to talk about her soul. He tries to convince her to repent. As he is leaving, however, he turns back to Susannah and lets her know he is interested in more than just her soul.

The next morning at the church, Blitch prays, begging for forgiveness of his sin against God and Susannah. She enters, along with the Elders, their wives and the other town folk. Blitch has called them, he explains, to right a wrong. He proclaims Susannah's innocence and asks them all to forgive her. The Elder McLean stubbornly demands to know why Blitch has had a change of heart. Blitch responds that the Lord spoke to him in prayer, but the Elders reject this. Blitch pleads with Susannah that he has tried to make amends, and asks for her forgiveness. She responds that she no longer knows what that word means.

When Sam returns home, he learns of Blitch's actions with his sister. Enraged, he kills the preacher at the baptismal pool. Susannah hears the shot and realizes what has happened even before Little Bat rushes in with the news. Laughing at their attempts to make her feel guilty, she takes a gun and orders them off the property. Undefeated, they retreat, leaving Susannah a lonely, embittered woman.

About the opera:

Premiere: Florida State University; Tallahassee, Florida; February 24, 1955

Susannah, a musical drama in two acts with music and text written by Floyd in 1955, is an Americanized version of the "Susanna and the Elders" story from the Book of Daniel in the Apocrypha. Susannah is one of the most frequently presented American operas, ranked second only to Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

The opera is a beautiful, melodic, American folk-type opera, yet still frighteningly relevant today. Susannah is not about McCarthyism, but it is certainly a metaphor for the paranoia of the mid-'50s, as one cannot help note the parallels between the story and the particular time in American history when it was written. It is all about mountain valley intolerance. The opera depends greatly on word, action, and dramatic intensity with American dances and revival hymns. It skillfully imitates Appalachian square dances and folk songs. Susannah combines poetry and music in a way that brings seemingly unremarkable characters to life, showing the depth and passions of human emotions and the tragedy of human weaknesses, real and perceived.

According to the book of Susanna in the Apocrypha, Susanna and the prophet Daniel were among the Jewish exiles living in Babylon. Because Susanna rebuffed two elders with dishonorable intentions, they accused her of sinful behavior, and she was condemned to death. Upon being led to her execution, Susanna prayed to the Lord for help. The boy Daniel came to her defense by asking each elder separately under which tree they had witnessed Susanna's sin. Their contradictory evidence convinced the community of Susanna's innocence, and the elders were sentenced to the very death they had planned for Susanna. Everyone rejoiced for Susanna "because nothing shameful was found in her" and from then on Daniel had a great reputation among the people.

Susanna: Hebrew: Shoshanna - Lily
Daniel: Hebrew: God has Judged

This production is presented by arrangement with Boosey & Hawkes, Inc., publisher and copyright owner.

[J. Scott Brumit]

Longwood Opera
42 Hawthorne Avenue
Needham, Massachusetts 02492-3806

For more information call (781) 455-0960 or send e-mail to

Last updated on May 28, 2004 by Marion Leeds Carroll  (