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Opera Performs Fairy Tales With a Twist

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Snow White and a lively group of her fairy tale cohorts meet up with poet Anne Sexton in Juilliard Opera’s production of Conrad Susa’s Transformations, taking place this month in the Rosemary and Meredith Willson Theater. Featuring a cast of eight singers, accompanied by eight instrumentalists, the production is being directed by Edward Berkeley and conducted by Steven Osgood.

Conrad Susa’s opera Transformations will be performed at Juilliard this month. The work is based on the poetry of Anne Sexton, shown here in Boston in 1973.

(Photo by Gwendolyn Stewart, © 2010; All Rights Reserved.)

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The work takes its name from a collection of 17 poems, each based on one of the Grimms’ fairy tales, published by Sexton in 1971. Most of the works in the collection follow the same format, with a prologue and coda framing a modernized (and often darkly humorous) retelling of the story. The libretto for the opera utilizes 10 of the poems, five for the first act and five for the second, and includes familiar tales like "Rumpelstiltskin" and "Briar Rose" (known more commonly as "Sleeping Beauty") as well as lesser-known ones such as "Godfather Death" and "The Gold Key." Each of the eight singers, who are referenced not by character names but by numbers in a complex casting grid, takes on several roles during the course of the opera, which Osgood describes as “the most virtuosic ensemble piece I’ve ever conducted.” One of the sopranos plays Anne Sexton as well as other characters. 

Sexton brings the fairy tales into the 20th century (specifically, post-1950 America) by incorporating frequent references to contemporary historical events and popular culture—in “Hansel and Gretel,” for example, the witch “turned as red as the Jap flag” and her “blood began to boil up like Coca-Cola.” She also utilizes a “confessional” mode, particularly in the introductory and concluding sections, wherein she seemingly alludes to her own personal history, including her struggle with mental illness. In the coda to “Iron Hans,” for instance, Sexton writes: “Without Thorazine / or benefit of psychotherapy / Iron Hans was transformed / No need for Master Medical; / No need for electroshock — / merely bewitched all along. / Just as the frog who was a prince.”

Highlighting the sinister undercurrents already present in many of the stories, Sexton also subverts even the “happily-ever-after” endings of the lighter tales. In the original conclusion of "The White Snake," for instance, the king’s servant and the princess live in “undisturbed happiness to a great age,” whereas in Sexton’s version, “They played house, little charmers, / exceptionally well. So, of course, / they were placed in a box / and painted identically blue / and thus passed their days / living happily ever after — / a kind of coffin, / a kind of blue funk. / Is it not?” 

Sexton, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for her collection Live or Die, has frequently been compared with her contemporary Sylvia Plath, both for their stylistic similarities and, tragically, their struggles with mental illness and eventual suicides— Sexton’s in 1974 at age 46.  

The first of Susa’s five operas to date, Transformations was commissioned by the Minnesota Opera Company and first performed in 1973. (Susa, who received his M.S. from Juilliard under the tutelage of William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti, is chair of the composition department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.) The original production was set in a mental institution, as were many subsequent versions. 

Berkeley, who first directed the work about 25 years ago at Aspen with Juilliard alumna Renée Fleming in the role of Anne Sexton, has directed it several times since then, including a production at Juilliard in the early-’90s. In an interview, Berkeley said that rather than setting the current production in a mental institution, his vision is for the audience to feel “almost as if they’re watching this amazing, very strange TV show being produced—sort of like a perverse ’50s children’s hour.” He also noted that the interactions between “Anne Sexton” and the other characters convey a sense of being in an “odd family” in which Sexton struggles to “come to grips with her own madness and personal history.”

The poems in Sexton’s Transformations become progressively darker and conclude, with “Briar Rose,” on a particularly grim note with the suggestion that Sexton was sexually abused by her father. (This may or may not have actually been the case; after Sexton’s death, a controversy emerged over her treatment by psychotherapist Dr. Martin Orne, who was accused of using unsound methods to recover supposedly repressed memories.) Susa’s score—which extensively invokes popular genres and specific artists (Miles Davis, Pérez Prado, and the Andrews Sisters)—similarly includes both humor and darkness, the latter especially evident in the haunting music for “Briar Rose.” Osgood has high praise for the music, noting that “a highly structured, archly intelligent classical language pervades the vocal writing” and that Susa’s integration of contemporary idioms is “more than just pastiche.”

Juilliard Opera’s production marks one of the first major performance events in the School’s new Rosemary and Meredith Willson Theater. While Berkeley looks forward to getting to know the venue, he said that achieving a balance between the band and the singers in the space will be a particular challenge. For Osgood, the most difficult task is “making the moment-to-moment word play intelligible within the tight spaces the music allows.” The only job for audience members will be to find out why Transformations has been one of the most widely admired American operas for nearly the last four decades. 

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