Carlisle Floyd was born in South Carolina in 1926. His father, who was a Methodist minister, was posted in various small South Carolina towns. The experience of growing up in the rural South has deeply informed most of Floyd's musical output. Nearly all of his operas have southern, rural, or colonial settings.
Floyd's primary musical training was initially in piano, not composition. He studied with Ernst Bacon, first at Converse College in Spartanburg, SC beginning in 1943, then followed Bacon to Syracuse University when Bacon joined the faculty there. In 1947 Floyd was first appointed to the piano faculty at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he remained for nearly 30 years. He returned to Syracuse University to earn a master's in 1949, and was primarily a pianist until 1955. He eventually became a professor of composition at Florida State, where he remained until 1976, when he accepted a similar post at the University of Houston in Texas. He also served as the co-director of the Houston Opera Studio.
Floyd is of an unusual cast as an American composer. Unlike others of his generation, he has almost exclusively written for the stage. That singular interest, along with one in composition, developed during his master's degree program at Syracuse. Drawing upon previous successful playwriting experience, he wrote both the libretto and music for his first opera, Slow Dusk. Floyd is also a gifted writer, and it shows in this first opera. Slow Dusk is an adaptation of one of Floyd's own short stories. A poignant, darkly themed one-act musical play, it was first produced at Syracuse University in 1949, then in New York during the 1950s. Floyd's second opera, The Fugitives, was produced at Florida State University in 1951, but was withdrawn after only one performance.
Although Floyd has written 12 operas to date, his most successful work has been Susannah, which was first produced in Tallahassee in 1955, then was taken up by the New York City Opera and performed in New York in 1956, to great acclaim. Susannah was so well-received that it generated a New York Critics' Circle Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and several other prestigious honors. Of Mice and Men, produced in 1969, has been Floyd's most successful opera after Susannah. Both operas have become part of the standard operatic repertoire.
Floyd's music, which is deeply influenced by Southern culture, has an air of nostalgia similar to other American nationalist works dating from 1930s and '40s. It uses harmonies based on 4ths and 5ths, which nicely support melodies reminiscent of American folk tunes, ranging from Appalachian folk ballads to the blues. It also captures the lyricism inherent in the novels of "classic" Southern writers such as William Faulkner, James Agee, or Eudora Welty.
Dramatically, Floyd's operas follow the verismo tradition: the stories are gritty, often tragic in nature, and are about common people placed in challenging situations or faced with impossible choices. His libretti, which he writes himself, are detailed enough that they include directions for facial expressions. High dramatic points are sometimes expressed by moments of silence or in spoken dialogue. His operas call for small casts and minimal sets and stage design, making them both attractive and economical to produce. Because he limits the height of dramatic expression in each of his works, the more popular operas are adaptable for both professional and collegiate productions.
Carlisle Floyd's operas have been produced more consistently than any other living American composer, except perhaps for Gian-Carlo Menotti (1911-2007). As Andrew Stiller wrote: "His popularity...reflects his ability to function within, even to exploit, longstanding adverse conditions in American opera production, where new works have been valued above all for conventionality and ease of presentation."