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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.


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.”


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.

Act I

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.

Act II

VI. Rapunzel - The need of older women for
younger women.

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 speaker in this case
is a middle-aged witch, me…


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.


What really shines in Diamond’s production are the individual singers and musicians giving life and clarity to Sexton’s words and Susa’s rhythmically complex music. Susa, partial to tonal scales and baroque counterpoint, provides numerous occasions for vocal harmonies that melt into the ear like honey on freshly baked bread. One whiff of Susa’s musical inventions and the Dresser was hooked right in. Perhaps his Pied Piper secret has to do with his ability to blend old pop singing styles reminiscent of Bing Crosby, Lena Horne, the Andrews Sisters, and Ethel Merman with classical vocalizations. It also helped that Sexton’s words were projected on screens around the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and that the acting of the singers was fluid and eye-catching. The Dresser pauses here to say when the libretto is written by a poet, every word counts and none should be missed. And the Dresser has lots of praise for singers such as Kara Morgan and Meghan McCall because not only could they articulate notes and words well, but they could also do scintillating body rolls.


Sopranos Kara Morgan as Witch and Meghan McCall as Rapunzel
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver


The Dresser would not be meeting expectations if she failed to provide samples of Sexton’s poetry. Sexton’s poems contain lots of details about the lives and bodies of women. Have a look at some of her controversial passages and judge for yourself about how immediate Sexton’s work is.


A woman
who loves a woman
is forever young.
The mentor
and the student
feed off each other.
Many a girl
had an old aunt
who locked her in the study
to keep the boys away.
They would play rummy
or lie on the couch
and touch and touch.
Old breast against young breast...
Let your dress fall down your shoulder,

come touch a copy of you
for I am at the mercy of rain,
for I have left the three Christs of Ypsilanti
for I have left the long naps of Ann Arbor
and the church spires have turned to stumps.
The sea bangs into my cloister
for the politicians are dying,
and dying so hold me, my young dear,
hold me...
The yellow rose will turn to cinder

and New York City will fall in
before we are done so hold me,
my young dear, hold me….


The king married her
and within a year
a son was born.
He was like most new babies,
as ugly as an artichoke
but the queen thought him in pearl.
She gave him her dumb lactation,
delicate, trembling, hidden,
warm, etc.
And then the dwarf appeared
to claim his prize.
Indeed! I have become a papa!
cried the little man.
She offered him all the kingdom
but he wanted only this -
a living thing
to call his own.
And being mortal
who can blame him?

The queen cried two pails of sea water.
She was as persistent
as a Jehovah's Witness.
And the dwarf took pity.
He said: I will give you
three days to guess my name …


Thus the Dresser left Kay Theatre feeling as a full as a tick embedded deep in the skin of its host. One question remains for the composer who has created four other operas:
Black River (1975, revised 1981)
The Love of Don Perlimplin (1984)
The Wise Woman (1994)
The Dangerous Liaisons (1994, revised 1996-97)
and wrote this piece (Susa called Transformations an entertainment not an opera) in three month’s time and at the request of Minnesota Opera music director Philip Brunelle—does he have another opera like this one in him? If yes, what subject would excite him?


Comments (1)

I Have never read a review that so wanted me to enter the theatrical reality described. WOW.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 13, 2007 9:25 PM.

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