Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Merola Opera Program presented the first of two performances of the first of the two full-length productions it has been preparing. The opera was Transformations, which its composer, Conrad Susa, described as “An Entertainment in 2 Acts.” The title is that of Anne Sexton’s 1971 book of seventeen “poem-stores,” each of which retells one of the Grimm fairy tales from Sexton’s highly individual point of view. Sexton worked closely with Susa on the libretto, which consists of ten of the poem-stories, five in each of the opera’s two acts.
Sexton became a popular poet during the Sixties and received particular attention in conjunction with the rising feminist movement. To appropriate a popular trope from that period, she could write poems to “tell it like it is.” She also sustained many swings into manic and depressive episodes, as well as attempts at suicide. She was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was a patient at McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts in 1973. (She had taught poetry there in 1968.) She committed suicide through the carbon monoxide emissions of her own car in a closed garage on October 4, 1974.
Each of the poem-stories in Transformations beings with a prologue in which Sexton establishes her personal position with respect to the story. This approach to presenting a context before unfolding the plot was maintained in the libretto for Susa’s opera. In both book and opera the result amounts to a story about storytelling, rather than just a latter-day reflection on old stories with folk origins.
In that last sentence I started to type “contemporary” before changing it to “latter-day.” The greatest shortcoming of the opera’s libretto today is that it has lost much of the contemporary verve that made Sexton’s texts so compelling when she published them. (The opera had its world premiere on May 5, 1973, when that verve was still strong.) Today Sexton has become a far more distant figure, and the sharp edges of her rhetoric have been eroded by the many ways in which the world has changed over the course of some 40 years. There are still passages that can get under your skin; but there are also throw-away phrases that lead one to wonder if she was trying to channel Woody Allen.
Nevertheless, it is important to recognize how effective Susa was in setting those words to music. While the supertitles certainly helped one negotiate some of Sexton’s more convoluted phrases, Susa clearly understood how to make sure that the vocalist would be able to manage the delivery of those phrases. This is an opera that places all of the vocalists in the best possible light, turning them all into storytellers drawing the audience into their series of fantasy worlds. Sexton’s poems may now have many dated qualities, but they also have virtues that rise above the flat prose of ABC’s Once Upon a Time. Those are the sorts of virtues that make an opera worth singing in the first place.
Fortunately, the vocalists were engagingly abetted by Director Roy Rallo, working with two imaginative scenic designs, each one multipurpose for a single act, by Marsha Ginsberg. The perspective of the storyteller was further enhanced by having only eight vocalists changing roles as each story unfolded. (Only a fraction of those roles were included in the program, but all one needed to know about the characters could be gleaned simply by observing Rallo’s staging. Those interested in how all of the many roles were divided among the vocal lines can consult the Wikipedia page for this opera.) Then there was the skeletal instrumentation that required only eight performers and amounted to the sort of combo one might have encountered back when the phrase “progressive jazz” was popular. Conductor Neal Goren elicited a spontaneity from this band that fit into the storytelling personae of the vocalists like a well-tailored glove.
As a result, while the narrative qualities of the libretto may have worn a bit with time, the music still packed a mighty punch. The vocal demands were frequently imposing but were never beyond the scope of the participating Merolini. Yet this was clearly a group effort in which no one vocalist every rose very high above the others. Indeed, the reduced resources both on stage and in the pit almost suggested that this would have managed well as street theatre, were there not so many subtleties in the score so capably managed by Goren and all who followed him.