Good collegiate opera companies can draw attention to their work and their students by consciously choosing to stage new and recent operas rather than simply doing the same old chestnuts as professional companies, just with less money and inexperienced singers. The University of Maryland Opera Studio's smart productions are often of great interest because they are the only opportunity to see rare operas on an area stage, things that mainstream opera companies are usually too cowardly to attempt. After an oh-so-crazy production of Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto last spring, the group has presented an equally "zany" production of an opera I have long wanted to see staged, Conrad Susa's Transformations. This production was a fitting end to a busy weekend of three operas, after Purcell's The Fairy Queen at the Folger and Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at the Châteauville Foundation.
For the 1973 premiere of this opera, American composer Conrad Susa (b. 1935) worked with poet Anne Sexton to adapt her book of the same name, the poet's reinterpretation of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. Sexton's book is a classic of 60s feminism, a psychological reinterpretation of fairy tales in terms of the poet's own life. The operatic collaboration happened after Sexton had become famous by winning a Pulitzer Prize for her confessional poetry, and just a year before she lost her life-long struggle with mental illness and finally succeeded in killing herself. It is only the first of Susa's several operas (Black River, The Love of Don Perlimplín, The Wise Women, and Dangerous Liaisons) that I have managed to strike off my list of opera desideria for new productions.
Kara Morgan as Anne Sexton in Transformations, Maryland Opera Studio, 2007, photo by Cory Weaver
Fortunately, there was Susa's ingenious score, set for a band, not really an orchestra, of eight players. Susa's music, which I have encountered thus far mostly in his choral pieces, is a skillful combination of dissonance, neo-Baroque tonal and contrapuntal structures, chameleon-like in its mimicry of countless other styles, both forward- and backward-looking. Transformations references swing, tango, Sousa marches, Broadway, torch songs, to name but a few. Much of the vocal writing is for various combinations of the eight roles, with especially pleasing episodes for the quintet of male voices, in close harmony, often dissonant, performed with skill and grace by Eric Sampson, Nicholas J. Houhoulis, James Biggs, Darren Perry, and VaShawn McIlwain.
Karren L. Alenier, Transformations: An Opera That Excites the Senses (The Dressing, April 13)
Anne Sexton, The Gold Key (excerpt from Transformations)
Roger Brunyate, A Feminist Far from Grimm: Anne Sexton and her Transformations
Richard Mercier, Transformations: A subjective slant on the Brothers Grimm
University of Maryland Opera Studio will also stage a rare production of Gluck's Armide this week, from April 19 to 22, with Ryan Brown conducting the musicians of Opera Lafayette in the pit. Ionarts will have a review, of course.