Kentucky Opera's Guide to Susannah
NOTE: Susannah is an opera containing some mature themes.
The Electronic Field Trip to Kentucky Opera is appropriate for grades 6-9. This Web guide is intended primarily for teachers and is also appropriate for high school students.
Music and Libretto by Carlisle Floyd
Premiere: Florida State University; Tallahassee, Florida; February 24, 1955
Time: The Present
Place: New Hope Valley, Tennessee
Kentucky Opera's production of Susannah is conducted by Ward Homquist, with stage direction by Rhoda Levine.
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 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 immediately notices Susannah.
Later that evening, Susannah returns to the Polk farmhouse, followed by simple-minded Little Bat. 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 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, and they repeat the words of the Reverend Blitch, demanding a public confession. Susannah enters quietly and is stunned when no one will speak to her. The Elder McLean informs her that she is not welcome, and the confused girl runs blindly away.
Later, Susannah is seated on the steps of her house. Little Bat enters, and he tells her what is wrong. The Elders have spread the word that they saw her bathing in the creek, and they intend to run her out of the church and maybe even the valley. Susannah gasps with indignation, stating that she has always bathed in the creek and resents being spied upon. Little Bat also reveals that the Elders induced him to confess that he had been involved with her. Susannah is angry at Little Bat for telling such a lie, but he says he was too scared to resist them, and she angrily sends him away. Susannah notices that Sam is on the porch and has heard the whole story. He tries to calm her. She begs him to explain why this is happening to her, but he can only answer with silence.
A few days later, Susannah attends the New Hope Church prayer meeting, sitting alone on the last bench. The Reverend Blitch begins his sermon about a man who was good, but not "saved." 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 choir with a wave. He speaks of the one sinner who has not approached him, and 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.
An hour later, at the Polk farm, Susannah sings a mountain lover's lament. From behind her comes the voice of Blitch, complimenting her on her singing. He explains that he has come to talk about her soul.
Susannah accuses the Elders and Little Bat of lying. Blitch is impressed, but as she continues to describe her loneliness and her misery of that week, he insists that the sin is in her heart. She denies this vehemently. He approaches her, and lays his hand on her shoulder, but she is too weary to react. Blitch then speaks of his own loneliness, and upon discovering that Sam is away, he leads her into the house.
The next morning at the church, Blitch prays, begging for forgiveness of his sin against God and Susannah. She enters, along with the Elders and their wives. 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. The people of the valley come after Susannah, but she greets them with a shotgun and derisive laughter, and drives them away. She is left a lonely, embittered woman.
About Susannah at the U.S. Opera site