In the late 1960s, my wife at the time, a soprano named Patricia Wise, had sheet music for two arias from “Susannah”. I was really impressed: there was modern opera here that was beautiful, touching and – I hate to say it – listenable.
Soon after, I got a job in Houston, and right after I went to the Cincinnati Opera to hear “Mice and Men,” which is when I first met Carlisle. After hearing that opera, I told him that I was going to program it in Houston during my first season as general director, and I offered to start a work that would become “Bilby’s Dolls”, the new opera. There he started a series of He was offered a position at the University of Houston, so he and his wife Kay made the move. Our relationship flourished and we became friends in tennis. Looking back, he is – my best friend.
I left the subject of his opera to him, but almost all his ideas were brought to life. My favorites, I guess, are “Susannah,” “Of Mice and Men” and, I would say, “Cold Sassy Tree.” He brought that book to me as an idea; I read it and I thought it was engaging and engaging, bringing out characters who were familiar with their past works but carried them forward. It stemmed from a period in his life when he was suffering from severe depression. He’s always had his demons, but he said my encouragement of “Cold Sassy Tree” brought him through a really terrifying period, and took him to the other side. Obviously I am glad that I played that role.
We were rarely in trouble. I thought my job was to get the opera from their heads to the stage and get the co-producers involved. This meant that tasks in different cities would get automatic revival. It was a great formula.
He and I developed the Houston Grand Opera Studio in the late ’70s because we were both very interested in providing opportunities for young artists. Emerging Americans in the 50s had to move to Europe, so that was an option. We wanted to use the opportunity of Carlisle’s placement at the University of Houston to bring the university into partnership with us. And they took a good deal of time to provide fellowships to engage faculty, and we had studio productions that were given on campus.
I think his legacy is probably six important works that deserve performances. I think if you talk to someone like Jake Heggie, there’s a whole generation of musicians who look at Carlisle like a godfather. He and his work gave him the confidence to have his own voice and to make those voices loved by contemporary audiences.