Southern Belles and Whistles

Transforming a comic novel about turn-of-the-century Georgia into an opera seems a bit like hosting a crawfish boil at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet veteran composer Carlisle Floyd seeks to do just that with Houston Grand Opera's world premiere of Cold Sassy Tree, his lyrical adaptation of Olive Ann Burns's 1984 novel of the same name.

HGO commissioned the work three years ago, and from the get-go Floyd faced difficulties, some inherent in translating a novel to the stage. While books such as Cold Sassy Tree can afford to weave a long, rambling narrative, sometimes moving wildly from character to character, a libretto has to have a tighter focus and is more dependent on suspense and climax, some might even say melodrama. Burns's novel adds a further complication: a bumptious and diverting 14-year-old narrator. But Floyd is convinced the book's colorful qualities will overcome any shortcomings. He finds the characters to be sharply drawn inside a plot rich in crisis and emotion, and the rustic setting of the fictitious Cold Sassy, Georgia, reminds the composer, born in 1926, of growing up in a small Southern town as the son of a Methodist minister.

The libretto focuses on the furor that results when Cold Sassy General Store owner Rucker Lattimore -- the name has been changed from the novel's Rucker Blakeslee because, Floyd says, the surname is too difficult to sing -- does the unthinkable: Only three weeks after the death of his wife he marries Love Simpson, a Yankee half his age. In tying the knot so quickly, the outspoken Lattimore flouts the wishes of his grieving daughters and thumbs his nose at his fellow townsfolk.

"Although the book is delightfully episodic, it does not have a strong narrative line," says Floyd, who's no stranger to writing operas and librettos with Southern themes, most notably Willie Stark (an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men) and Susannah. "I had to create more suspense than is implied in the novel, as well as more narrative and dramatic focus."

Though Floyd had to pare down the number of characters, he nonetheless retained the book's protagonists, including the narrator, Will Tweedy. He also kept several significant bits, including the outrageous scene when Lattimore's new wife is caught stealing a long kiss from her former fiancé, Clayton McAllister. Floyd was hard-pressed, though, to render another classic scene, because of the limitations of the live stage: Will's being run over by a train. "I have my own equivalent, which I think works just as well," says Floyd.

The composer's biggest challenge lay in capturing the poetic, pokey conversational rhythms of backwoods Georgia -- through music, of all things. Floyd is happy with the way it turned out. "The score is very accessible, very tuneful as befits the material," he says. "It has a stylized country flavor that suggests the Southern locale and nature of the story." While the music boasts a wide-ranging idiom with moments of unbuttoned, down-home flavor, it winds up being almost jazzy, he says.

Joining Floyd on the project is Australian film director Bruce Beresford, who is helming this production. Beresford is no slouch at giving us memorable pictures. He has snatched Academy Awards for directing two films about small-town American life: Driving Miss Daisy and Tender Mercies. Impressed by Floyd's ability to adapt such an unwieldy novel to the operatic stage, Beresford is eager to bring to the project his own touch for rendering the Southern experience.

In the end, Floyd is fairly sure his musical version of Cold Sassy Tree will pass muster. "I hope devotees of the novel won't be disappointed," he says. Considering his track record for Southern opera, we suspect Floyd will be whistling "Dixie" when the final curtain drops.

HGO music director Patrick Summers conducts the HGO Orchestra, soprano Patricia Racette sings Love Simpson, bass-baritone Dean Peterson assumes the role of Rucker Lattimore, and tenor John McVeigh takes on the part of Will Tweedy. Houston Grand Opera performs Cold Sassy Tree from Friday, April 14, through Saturday, May 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the Wortham Theater Center, Texas Avenue at Smith Street. Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. $22-$182. Call (713)227-ARTS for more information.

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Cynthia Greenwood