Opera at USC to debut 'Susannah'

Mary Comtois/ The Daily Gamecock

“Susannah,” the opera written by Carlisle Floyd in 1955, is making its way to Drayton Hall Theatre for the first time by way of Opera at USC. 

Set in a rural Tennessee town in the 1950s, the opera dives into the world of Susannah, a young girl who wants to leave her small hometown. A horrific event and a ghastly rumor sends her world spiraling as she becomes the town pariah.

Neil Casey, the USC Music Director and conductor of the show’s orchestra, said the Gamecock community can learn from “Susannah.” 

“It’s kind of about a really horrible community and how terribly they treat an individual, and then, you know, we’re hoping that we can help make our community better as a result of this story," Casey said. 

The opera’s cast includes students, graduate assistants and even alumni, all coming together to give their interpretations of what “Susannah” really stands for. 

Melissa Starkweather, a second-year student in the master’s opera program, is one of the two actors portraying Susannah. She said she believes the opera remains relevant today. 

“It shows the danger of believing rumors without evidence," Starkweather said. "And how people can really be motivated by fear and that can harm other people.”

A common theme throughout the opera is the use of feminist ideologies. The titular character is a young girl who, because of her age and gender, has now become a target within her community. The opera shows the struggles Susannah goes through and how her life is completely changed because of the actions of her community.

“It’s a very important opera for where we are today, socially and politically, because especially with the #MeToo movement, I think it’s really important to talk about these types of situations, and a lot of the show has, for me, has a lot to do with victim-blaming and things like that," Starkweather said. "I think it really sheds a light on how a few people in a community can affect the rest of the community for harm."

Catherine Howland, a fourth-year choral music education student, is the other actress portraying Susannah. She said the play also holds modern day significance because of the way in which it explores rape culture, victim blaming and misogyny. No matter one's background or upbringing, theatergoers can see something of themselves in one of the characters, Howland said.

Another common theme that is present within "Susannah" is how effective communities are at working together – or against one – of their own.

“When you’re in a community, you start to think like your community and you start to act like your community, and you can see this with the Gamecock community whenever we’re in Williams-Brice Stadium and we’re all with rally towels. Everyone is doing it, and when you go other places, you want to do what your peers do," ensemble member and public relations chair Madie Willard said. "Susannah was set apart. She didn’t do what her peers did, and people thought she was horrible and wrong because she did not conform to the community."

But just as communities are integral to how we carry ourselves, Willard said all students should see "Susannah" to be aware of how we can impact our own communities and the downside of community members turning on each other. 

As “Susannah” premieres this weekend, the cast and crew wants to show that they have learned from the message behind “Susannah” by hosting a food drive for The Gamecock Pantry. 

“There's a lot of stuff that "Susannah" really hits on, and one of the big ones is how negative a community can be, and we want to change the world, and the fastest way to do that is change your community,” graduate assistant Greg Pipkin said.

The Gamecock Pantry is a food bank on campus that helps students, faculty and staff with food and other resource insecurities. The pantry is open to everyone and offers free and confidential support to those who need it. Attendees of “Susannah” are encouraged to bring canned goods, toiletries and any other non-perishables they are willing to donate to the Gamecock community. According to Pipkin, the goal is to have more than 500 pounds of food donations.

“Susannah” will run this weekend with 7:30 p.m. shows on Nov. 1 and 2 and a 3 p.m. matinee on Nov. 3. Student tickets are $10 with a valid ID. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door, but online sales end at 3 p.m. on opening day.

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