“The Trees on the Mountains”
from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah
with Rhiannon Giddens
FLEMING: She now has no future, or the future looks very different than she had imagined it briefly in the beginning in the opera, and that’s sort of a consistent operatic… operatic theme, which is that the soprano is happy for five minutes, and then it’s all downhill from there.
GIDDENS: Welcome to Aria Code. I’m Rhiannon Giddens.
TANENBAUM: She is longing to be connected to other people, and the townspeople sensed her loneliness, and they manipulated her.
GIDDENS: Every episode, we pull apart one moment from an opera to see how it works and then put it back together so you can hear it in a whole new way. Today, an aria that’s very special to me: “The Trees on the Mountains” from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah.
HOLLIDAY: There is no way you can listen to that simple, strophic song and not sense the underlying devastation of this young woman who is now looking at the rest of her life as a disaster.
GIDDENS: Well, it’s been a couple of months since we closed out season one. I’ve missed you guys, and I’m really excited to be back with this special episode of Aria Code. What’s so special about it? Well, we’ll get to that. But first, a short journey to the past...
So back in my college days -- when I was still doing the opera thing at UNCG in North Carolina -- I got to sing the title role from Carlisle Floyd’s first full-length opera, Susannah. It’s one of the three most performed operas by an American composer, and in my humble opinion, it’s one of the best.
Now the story… it’s kinda rough. Susannah’s an 18-year-old girl living in an Evangelical community in the mountains of Tennessee. The men from the church are all attracted to her, and their wives are super jealous. Then this traveling preacher Reverend Blitch comes to town, and even he can’t take his eyes off her!
One day, Susannah’s bathing in a creek and a group of men see her. They’re out of their minds with lust, which is of course a sin, but they don’t want to confront their own shame so they turn it around and blame her. They say, “She’s dangerous! She’s evil! Possessed by the devil, even!” Their wives join in and spread a rumor that Susannah’s slept with one of the boys in town.
Now Susannah’s shamed and ostracized and more alone than she’s ever been. And in this moment, she sings herself the song that we’re going to discuss today, “The Trees on the Mountains.” It’s about loss of love and loss of innocence.
The first time I heard “The Trees on the Mountains,” I thought it was totally devastating, but also just the most beautiful song. I’m excited to decode it for you, and there are a few good folks here to help me.
Renée Fleming… maybe you’ve heard of her? She made her Lyric Opera of Chicago debut singing Susannah, and she sang the role again in the Met Opera’s 1999 production. But she fell in love with this aria way before that...
FLEMING: When I was 12 years old, I would soulfully sing through this aria. And I absolutely fell in love with it and I told my mom that I was going to sing it for my voice recital, and this is really 7th or 8th grade. And she said she said, "Oh no. No no no no.” She said, "I don't think so. No honey, it's not appropriate for you." I didn't even know why.
GIDDENS: As a mother of a nine-year-old daughter... I certainly get it.
Also, we have opera director and writer Thomas Holliday. He spent five years speaking to Carlisle Floyd while researching and writing his biography, Falling Up.
HOLLIDAY: During one of the darker periods in Carlisle's life he said, “Tom I always feel like our interviews are like a good therapy session.” And I said, “That's the nicest compliment you could give me.”
GIDDENS: Our third decoder this week is Leora Tanenbaum, a writer and journalist. She studies the ways that women are shamed for their sexuality.
TANENBAUM: I started writing about slut shaming in the mid 1990s because I had been labelled a slut myself when I was in high school. There was no language to describe what had happened to me and what continues to happen to girls and women all the time, every day.
GIDDENS: So this is where I would normally send you off on a journey through the music with our wonderful guests, but we’re gonna do this a little different today. Some of you may know I have a new record that just came out called There is no Other, and one of the main things it deals with is trying to break down the artificial barriers between cultures and instruments and different types of music -- music like classical and folk. But as an opera singer turned banjo player, I can tell you that this music is more alike than it is different. “The Trees on the Mountains” is a folk song written for an opera, so I just felt like it belonged on this record. It’s also a song that addresses some of the thorniest issues that we’re still dealing with today, so I felt like it belonged on this show. So let’s get started. I’m goin’ in!
HOLLIDAY: Carlisle Floyd is the George Washington and Abraham Lincoln of American opera. For 200 years there have been other Americans who have written operas, but Carlisle to date has written 17 and it’s a part of our American heritage. His background as the son of a Methodist minister had involved many summers of revival meetings and multiple church services, which made Susannah absolutely natural.
FLEMING: It's an exciting story. It's a well constructed piece. She's a very empathetic heroine. And of course the story as we know is timeless. I mean how many paintings... almost every museum major museum has some version of Susanna and the Elders. I think it's almost the first tabloid story going back to the Bible, the story of innocence, blame, shame, and lust.
HOLLIDAY: He took the story from biblical setting to a valley in Tennessee that was quite rural. No running water, no electricity, and a visiting summer revivalist with the Dickensian name of Olin Blitch, combined all these elements together, and that became his earliest great success...really his red carpet to the large world. And the doors opened for Carlisle.
FLEMING: So Susannah in the opera is a young woman with all hope. I mean the very first thing that she sings... It talks about leaving and going off and forging a life and really her future.
GIDDENS: She's a beautiful soul that has to go through some really tough stuff. She's so eager and joyous and just open with it all.
TANENBAUM: It's so interesting that Susannah is 18 years old. She's a teenager, not quite an adult, she's in that in-between developmental space. And so that also opens up possibilities of how she can be interpreted by the townspeople. Is she a child? Is she innocent? Is she presexual? Or is she this seductress who's an adult?
GIDDENS: That's right in the middle of that incredibly rapid, who am I, what's going on in my life, how do I respond to the world. And so when something that shattering happens I think it's very character affecting, you know? You'd have to fight very hard not to let that affect the rest of your life, I think.
TANENBAUM: When Susannah is emotionally expressing how lonely she feels, how she feels abandoned, I remember experiencing those feelings when I was 14 years old, and I did not have the ability to make sense of what was happening to me when my peers called me a slut, because that language did not exist yet. The term “sexual harassment” had just been coined in the 1980s at roughly the same time that I was experiencing sexual harassment, and I really did feel alone the way Susannah expresses in this aria.
GIDDENS: “The Trees on the Mountains” is such a quiet and intimate song. It's very, very still. It's very internal. And the way that Floyd sets this up is that it comes immediately after one of the loudest, most dramatically intense periods of the opera, where the townspeople and Olin Blitch are accusing Susannah of things that she's never done and she absolutely rejects it and she's screaming “No!” at the top of her lungs, and she runs away. And then she's at home and this song comes. It's just immediately into her world and her realization that she's alone with her sadness and her disappointment and that she's been betrayed by everyone that she knows and abandoned by her community. And that's where she is when she starts to sing this song.
TANENBAUM: Susannah begins with the words, "The trees on the mountains are cold and bare. The summer just vanished and left them there." And when she sings these words, we connect with her so much because she is that tree on a mountain that's been left cold and bare.
GIDDENS: She's an orphan so her parents are gone. The only person that she has in the world is her brother Sam, who's pretty irresponsible, off hunting and drinking all day long. And in her own community she's been an outsider because of her beauty and of her freedom. And they completely shut her out.
FLEMING: We now know that people who are preying on young women -- or men for that matter -- are looking for vulnerable people and she is that. And of course, it's not just what happens to her -- it's the ostracization by the community that is so painful to witness. She is blamed, which is so often the case.
TANENBAUM: She is longing to be connected to other people, she's lacking that connection in her life. And listening to these words -- "my heart wants warmin'” -- I wonder if the townspeople sensed her loneliness. And maybe they could see that she was perhaps desperate for that warmth and that connection, and they manipulated her.
HOLLIDAY: "The Trees on the Mountains," is a folk song based on Carlisle's absorption of Scotch, Irish, Welsh folk music in G minor which has a particularly tragic resonance in vocal outpourings.
FLEMING: What is so powerful about a folk melody, what are the elements in a folk melody that move us so much? They're often about loss and we feel deeply an emotional heart of something that is so sad, that expresses this kind of either longing or… or tragedy.
GIDDENS: “The Trees On The Mountains,” it’s an aria, but it's written to be performed as a folk song in the opera. The things that read very true to it being a sort of a ballad and a folk song are the melodies are very simple. They're repetitive. It's the same tune to each of the three verses, so it’s a strophic song, and the structure of each verse is very similar, this is before everybody was literate, and so these old traditional songs are set up, in ways to help you remember what comes next.
GIDDENS: It also has this really simple instrumentation. The orchestra is not playing anything super complex. They're playing very simple chords like you would hear on a harp or any other kind of folk instrument. And it makes it feel really accessible.
FLEMING: I have always been extremely drawn to folk music and any plucked, stringed, played instruments. There's a reason why we say, you know, “my heart strings.” The heart itself is very much affected by folk music. And I don't think we, any of us really understand why.
HOLLIDAY: There’s no way you can listen to that simple, strophic song and not sense the underlying devastation of this young woman who is now looking at the rest of her life as a disaster. It’s become almost unbearably personal.
TANENBAUM: She says, "the road up ahead lies lonely and far, there's darkness around me and not even a star." She is utterly alone. She is marginalized by the townspeople who insult her and police her. They have this mindset of the sexual double standard: there is one standard for boys and men, and another unequal one for girls and women. It goes back to the Hebrew Bible where we have a tradition of men having multiple sexual partners, but women are not allowed themselves to have multiple sexual partners. In part, this is due to the fact that while we never have a question about maternity, historically there have been questions about paternity. So any culture or religion that is based on patrilineal descent is going to have anxiety about fatherhood.
GIDDENS: So when we get to the aria's refrain, which is Susannah saying, "Come back, oh summer, come back, blue flame," it starts to get really much more intense and a little bit less folk-like. The vocal line moves up and we can really hear the intensity of her longing. And then it keeps getting higher and even more intense on, "Come back, oh lover, if just for a day.” And the folk feel that the aria starts with has shifted into something a little bit more dramatic, so even though you're still hearing the folk structures of the chordal accompaniment and in the strophic feel, you also have that fully-voiced, very passionate sound that we really associate with opera, and that really increases the sense of urgency.
HOLLIDAY: We realize that this is a song that she's been singing to herself, mostly for herself, for years and years, and that the images, the words have taken on a different context now. She talks about the kind of lover that she wants. And then the blue flame becomes a complete point of reference to summarize where she came from and what she's lost. Where she'll never be able to go any more. And although she sings, "Come back, come back, come back," there's no coming back.
TANENBAUM: What is it that she wants to come back? I think she wants to go back to the time in her life when she was not sexualized by other people; she wants to go back to that time in her life when her body was hers, when her presexuality was hers to own. She doesn't own any of that anymore. And we will see that very starkly as soon as this aria ends.
HOLLIDAY: “The Trees on the Mountain” presents really great vocal challenges in the guise of simplicity. It's actually quite difficult to sing because at the end where she repeats, "Come back, Come back, come back,” she's going up to high B-flats. And the vocal line has been fairly placid and fairly low for a soprano tessitura. But at the end there's a great deal more to it than first meets the ear.
FLEMING: “The Trees on the Mountains” is so exposed and it requires all of this floating up high at the end. So when I debuted this role at Lyric Opera of Chicago, I can only say honestly that I was absolutely terrified. This is a really tough aria to sing. Really tough.
GIDDENS: Oh my gosh. So challenging. Yeah yeah.
FLEMING: (laughter) And Carlisle Floyd really uses the whole voice, so the entire range and the entire dynamic spectrum from very, very soft to really dramatic. So it takes a person with great resources to be able to sing some of these parts, and often that's juxtaposed with the fact that you're playing a very young person. And so you have to capture that innocence as well. So that's one of the real challenges about this part is do you look and sound kind of innocent in the beginning, and yet are you able to take on the real dramatic moments that come later.
TANENBAUM: Right after Susannah finishes the aria in which she has expressed the sense of being alone and abandoned, Reverend Blitch comes to her home...
HOLLIDAY: ...and begins to work on her sympathy and guilt and says, "I'm a lonely man, Susannah,” and you know there's trouble in store.
FLEMING: And she's so innocent she doesn't even understand what's happening or see it coming.
HOLLIDAY: And the predictable seduction happens...
TANENBAUM: And she says almost to herself, “I'm so tired, I just can't fight no more.”
HOLLIDAY: She succumbs. And she has lost not only her innocence, but she’s lost that joy in life because she realizes that she is now the ultimate outsider in New Hope Valley.
GIDDENS: So the brilliance and the ultimate tragedy of “The Trees on the Mountains” is where it's placed in the drama. When it comes and she's singing this aria, she’s singing this plaintive song, you get the feeling that none of this should be happening to her and that she thinks this is absolutely the lowest it's going to get for her, this is her low point. And then we realize it's not, because the reverend walks in and he robs her of every last shred. If she had any hope left, it's gone and that makes the entire scene a really intense transition from innocence to the complete loss of innocence.
TANENBAUM: One of the really exciting things about this opera is how relevant it is today despite the fact that it was written in a different era in the 1950s. Some of the language is different -- you know, today in vernacular English we don't go around using the word “wench.” Yet the narrative of Susannah being this outsider and then, moreover, there's a devil inside her -- the idea is not that far afield of, calling somebody a slut or a ho. When we use those terms today we are saying that person is deviant. They're not normal. And so, it just really resonates.
HOLLIDAY: The combination of words and music as an embodiment of the human struggle -- and in particular the struggle of the outsider to either integrate or learn to live on his or her own -- I think is something that we all face sooner or later. The whole process of individuation is what Susannah is the most cogent summary of.
FLEMING: But I think in her case it's absolutely mourning the loss of her future. She now has no future, or the future looks very different than she had imagined briefly in the beginning of the opera, and that's sort of a consistent operatic theme, which is that the soprano is happy for five minutes and then it's all downhill from there.
END OF DECODE
GIDDENS: That was soprano Renée Fleming, stage director and writer Thomas Holliday, writer Leora Tanenbaum, and… well, me! decoding “The Trees on the Mountains” from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. And now, here’s the complete track of the song from my new album, There is no Other.
[Rhiannon Giddens sings “The Trees on the Mountains.”]
GIDDENS: Well that’s it for this special episode of Aria Code. If you dug it - please share it with your friends. Also take a moment to head over to Apple Podcasts and leave us a rating or review. We love hearing from you, and it really helps us out.
This episode of Aria Code was produced by WQXR in New York. If you want to dive into this music some more, listen to WQXR’s 24-hour opera stream. It’s called Operavore and you can find it at WQXR dot org.
Our producer is Merrin Lazyan, Brendan Francis Newnam is our editor, and Matt Abramovitz is our Executive Producer. Sound design and mixing by Matt Boynton, and original music by Hannis Brown.
Special thanks to Nonesuch Records, the Metropolitan Opera, and Boosey & Hawkes for letting us share the music on this episode. Both Jane Matheny, Carlisle Floyd’s niece, and Douglas Fisher, Director of the opera program at Florida State University, were invaluable to the research for this episode. And finally, thanks to Renée Fleming, Thomas Holliday, and Leora Tanenbaum for their insights. And… well, I’d like to think I added a little bit this time as well.
I’m Rhiannon Giddens. See you next time!
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.