Normally, fairy tales present a view of life’s obstacles and misfortunes through rose-colored glasses.

“Transformations,” Eastman Opera Theatre’s production of choice this fall, consists of altered fairy tales ? tales that present life’s confusion and woe through the sultry sunglasses of Anne Sexton’s fearless, “confessional” poetry and Conrad Susa’s diverse, audacious music.

The opera, or “entertainment,” as Susa prefers to call it, is set in a 1970s psychiatric ward. A middle-aged witch transformed into an unstable middle-aged beauty is the embodiment of Sexton herself. This character narrates the work’s poem-based subplots, alternately watching and joining in on the action, and is the common element that ties the lesser plots of “Transformations'” two acts together.

Act One explores such themes as our need to understand ourselves, ambivalent relationships and the “divine madness” of the artist. Sexton herself is an interesting figure because of the madness that plagued her personal and artistic lives.

Born into a dysfunctional family, Sexton constantly struggled with mental illness and spent much of her life in therapy. She attempted suicide on numerous occasions, finally killing herself in 1974 ? one year after the Minnesota Opera Company staged the world premiere of “Transformations.”

EOT’s new music director, Benton Hess, will be conducting this run of “Transformations.” His work conducting its New York premiere in 1978, which culminated in 18 performances in as many days, caused “Transformations” to become something of a favorite for him. His kinship for the work is one of the reasons why it’s the work of choice for EOT this fall.

“‘Transformations’ is a very amusing piece, but the overall impression that it makes is one of profound gravity,” explained Hess, who joined the Eastman faculty in July as a distinguished professor of voice.

“It certainly deals with topics that usually aren’t dealt with in opera, and makes everybody squirm at one time or another,” he said.

Susa chose to score the music for this work, which touches on substance abuse, psychotherapy, sexual indecision and attempted suicide, by working with an assortment of genres and musical ideas. Instrumental themes heard in “Transformations” suggest such varied composers as Monteverdi, Mahler and Miles Davis.

Eastman’s classically-trained vocalists are asked to loosely emulate the styles of such singers as Bing Crosby, Lena Horne and Ethel Merman.

“Transformations” is being performed by two casts of eight ? one cast performs Thursday and Saturday and the other performs Friday and Sunday ? of which only John Fulton and J. J. Hudson are the constant players. The orchestra consists of just nine musicians.

“Several of my friends have been working long and hard on ‘Transformations’ and I’m looking forward to seeing them perform,” said junior vocal performance major Camille Savage.

“It’s such an unusual opera. I’ll be interested to hear some of the jazz and blues influences in this contemporary work,” she added.

EOT’s “Transformations,” directed by Steven Daigle and conducted by Benton Hess, will scare a little reality into audiences Nov. 1 through Nov. 3 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 4 at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $10-$15, but will be discounted with UR ID.

Susa himself is scheduled to attend the last two performances.

Weiss can be reached at jweiss@camputimes.org.



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