San Francisco Opera Susannah Review - American Opera at its Finest

When you hear the word opera, do you imagine four hours of singing in a foreign language about an Egyptian pharaoh or a Norse god in Valhalla? Does your mind conjure up a work written by a long-dead composer? If so, then you will be pleasantly surprised by the San Francisco Opera’s current production of Susannah by American composer and librettist Carlisle Floyd.

This contemporary opera features two hours of beautiful singing in English (with English supertitles also displayed) and a story that takes place in Tennessee touching on topics such as religion, feminism, innocence, and ostracism. During curtain calls at recent performances, Floyd took the stage for a bow, something that neither Mozart nor Wagner has done for some time now.

At the square dance

The story line is biblical in origin, taken from chapter 13 of the Book of Daniel, often referred to as Susanna and the Elders. The story has been a favorite subject through the ages, appearing in paintings from 1470 onward, including a painting by Picasso. The 1938 painting by Thomas Hart Benton, which hangs at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, graces the program cover. The story is even the subject of one of Handel's operas. 

Reverend Blitch leads the revival meeting

In the original, Susanna is bathing in her garden when she is seen by some voyeuristic elders. When she returns home, they confront her, and threaten to tell everyone that she was meeting a boy in the garden unless she agrees to have sex with them. She refuses, is arrested, and is about to be put to death, when Daniel steps in to save the day. Daniel questions the elders, catches them in a lie, and it is the elders who are put to death. In the Bible's version, virtue triumphs. In Floyd's version, the ending is far from a happy one, and it is safe to say that no one triumphs.

The opera is set in the mid-1930s, in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. It is the Great Depression, in a deeply religious, highly restrictive society. The church elders are still in the story and still voyeurs. We still have sex, deceit, lying, and death, but Floyd has given us some new twists and turns.  Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that over the course of a few days, we watch Susannah go from a young, innocent girl to a bitter, lonesome outcast.

Revival meeting potluck

The demanding lead role of Susannah Polk is beautifully sung by soprano, Patricia Racette. Although this is a debut for her in this role, it is a bit of a homecoming, as she celebrates her twenty-fifth anniversary this season with the San Francisco Opera. Another standout among this superb cast is Raymond Aceto, bass, singing the role of revival preacher Reverend Olin Blitch. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich also shines, evoking passion and intensity in the role of Susannah’s brother Sam. 

Susannah's brother Sam

For this production, the world-class San Francisco Opera Orchestra is composed of 63 musicians and conducted by Karen Kamensek. The first act, thick with folk tunes, features the higher instruments, such as the flutes. There is even a fiddler on stage for the square dance. The second act however gets gloomy and is filled with church hymns. Here, we get to hear the lush strings and a haunting solo by the bass clarinet. This act also gives the percussion section a chance to make itself heard.  

The preacher seduces Susannah

The staging for this production is gorgeous, with lush, hazy video projections of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains seen behind, and sometimes in front of, the action. Simple sets, in muted grays and browns reminiscent of aged and weathered wood, bring the audience into Susannah’s mountain world. The revival scenes are held in a spare, woodsy setting marked by a giant, almost ominous, cross overhead. As the scenes progress, the color slowly drains from the set, in keeping with the somber sense of the story.

Sam comforts Susannah

Susannah premiered in 1955 when the composer was 28 years old. Since that time, the opera has seen over 800 performances. Floyd, still going strong at the age of 88, is hard at work on his next opera, Prince of Players, which is scheduled to premiere the year he turns 90.

You can catch this exceptional production at the San Francisco Opera through Sunday, September 21.

San Francisco Opera
301 Van Ness Avenue
(at Grove Street)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Main line: (415) 861-4008
Box Office: (415) 864-3330


  • Sat 09/06/14 7:30pm
  • Tue 09/09/14 7:30pm
  • Fri 09/12/14 7:30pm
  • Tue 09/16/14 7:30pm
  • Sun 09/21/14 2:00pm



Susannah Polk

Patricia Racette


Sam Polk

Brandon Jovanovich


Rev. Olin Blitch

Raymond Aceto


Mrs. McLean

Catherine Cook


Little Bat McLean

James Kryshak


Mrs. Hayes

Jacqueline Piccolino


Mrs. Gleaton

Erin Johnson


Mrs. Ott

Suzanne Hendrix


Elder Hayes

Joel Sorensen


Elder Gleaton

A.J. Glueckert


Elder McLean

Dale Travis



©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

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