Transformations: An Opera That Excites the Senses
Thirty-four years ago, May 5 1973, Conrad Susa’s first opera Transformations based on the poetry of Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Sexton enjoyed its world premiere in Minneapolis under a commission from the Minnesota Opera. On April 12, 2007, The Dresser much impressed by Maryland Opera Studio’s production of Transformations wonders what she was doing the day of Transformations’ premiere.
Soprano Kara Morgan as Witch/Anne Sexton
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver
She knows that even if her old journal had something as miraculous as this opera noted, the Dresser was just a young poet working by day as a computer analyst for the U.S. Department of Labor on jobs for the poor, the under-educated, those down on their luck and the Poet, not yet known as The Dresser, was far removed from the world of opera.
VONNEGUT ON SEXTON
However, in her collection of books, she still has Sexton’s Transformations, which she bought new in the early 1970s in paperback copy priced at $2.95 and with an introduction by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut, who just died April 11th and who wove science fiction, philosophy and jokes into his novels such as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, said in his intro of Sexton’s very grim modern day retelling of fairytales that Sexton “domesticates my terror, … teaches it some tricks which will amuse me, and then lets it gallop wild in my forest once more.”
THE WILD RIDE
What’s really clear is no matter how this chamber opera written for eight singers and eight instrumentalists is interpreted, the audience is in for a wild ride. Looking at the list of numbers provides part of the reason why.
I. The Gold Key - Our need to understand ourselves.
II. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - The ambivalent relationship of mother and daughter.
III. The White Snake - The divine madness of the artist.
IV. Iron Hans - Our ambivalence toward the insane.
V. Rumpelstiltskin - The Doppelgänger inside all of us.
VI. Rapunzel - The need of older women for
VII. Godfather Death - The fear of death and desire for death.
VIII. The Wonderful Musician -The demonic power of music.
A musician uses his talent to injure and deceive a fox, a wolf and a hare but escapes punishment by further use of his powers.
IX. Hansel and Gretel - Mother love and cannibalism.
X. Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) - The ambivalent relationship of father and daughter
In Susa’s opera, as in Sexton’s poem “The Gold Key,” Anne Sexton is a character opening or commenting on the various fairytales.
THE GOLD KEY
The speaker in this case
is a middle-aged witch, me…
WINDOW INTO SEXTON’S ANGUISH
The poems making up Sexton’s Transformations provide a vivid window into the life of a woman of enormous talent who also had severe problems that included insomnia, substance abuse, suicides attempts, incestuous contact with her daughter, and frequent stays in mental institutions for her bi-polar disorder. In October 1974, she committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning produced by allowing her car to run inside her closed garage.
Whereas the first production of Transformations was set in a mental institution with inmates playing the various roles, productions subsequently have taken other approaches. Maryland Opera Studio director Pat Diamond has set his production in the adult playground of the disco era with its jumpsuits sporting bell-bottomed pants and the overhead glittering mirrored disco ball. This scenario allows for the small orchestra to be on stage and for minimal props and sets. Given the varied musical styles employed by Susa and his predilection for compositions that suggest the conga, beguine, samba, tango, fox-trot, habanera, Diamond’s disco setting works quite well. The Dresser who is partial to jitterbug and Lindy Hop always did think the disco scene was quite a mad kind of dancing, what with all the flailing of arms and boring beat of its music.