Opera Brings Grimm's Fairy Tales to the Cat
In a room packed as tight as a fist, an energetic cast stormed through its recent performances of Conrad Susa’s Transformations on February 2nd at the Cat in the Cream. The work is a chamber opera based on the poet Anne Sexton’s re-interpretation of some of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The singers took on different roles for each of the fairytales. Some of these tales were well-known, such as “Rapunzel” and “Hansel and Gretel,” while others were far more obscure; for example, how many people could give a play-by-play of the story of “Irons Hans?”
Transformations offered a delicious deviation from other examples of the chamber opera genre – equality amongst the parts. Long solo passages were infrequent, replaced by hopscotching lead parts and contrapuntal accompaniment from members of the ensemble.
Another one of the refreshing exceptions in Transformations was the presence of dynamic visual one-liners. The fairy tales included several comedic digressions from the main storyline, such as a rambunctious dog portrayed by Conservatory junior Jayson Greenberg. The members of the cast were especially communicative with body language in presenting their characters during the production.
Beyond the scattered comic relief, the singing was moving and distinct. Conservatory seniors Jenna Hall, Sophie Wingland and double-degree fifth-year Elisabeth Shoup all embodied diverse characters using the size of their sound and skillful delivery. Similarly, the lineup of tenor roles could have very well been a bland grouping of identical and automated voices. This was not the case for Conservatory senior Elias Traverse, Conservatory junior Joseph Turro, Conservatory senior Evan Bennett and Greenberg, each of whom projected a specific nuance in their solos that not only colorized their characters, but kept the audience more engaged. Of course, Conservatory senior Jason Eck also did an excellent job; though as the only bass in the cast, perhaps he had less to worry about in the first place.
The work did encounter its troubles, however. By being in a small, densely-packed performance space, it frequently seemed that the pit orchestra was overpowering the cast. This is a spatial problem more than a musical problem, particularly with the instruments used (winds, percussion, double bass and synthesizers), and the work was bound to have volume problems. This situation did cause trouble for the audience, as the ever-elusive lyrics of operatic singing were sometimes lost, and the lack of subtitles or a strong plot outline in the program notes did leave many audience members stumped as to why certain things were happening. I wondered, during the work, why not subdue the synthesizers (which is very possible with the rotation of a knob) and perhaps modify or move the percussion so it was not as obstructive as it turned out to be on occasion. A similar solution was already employed by the winds, which placed the trumpet facing the closer wall, away from the audience, with the quiet winds beside it. This made for audible yet musical interjections. On a cursory note, many (anonymous) audience members frequently found the use of synthesizer sounds to be unwieldy and hokey. Once again, this is not a reflection on the production itself, but on the outdated feeling synthesizers provide.
This Winter Term opera showed off some of the finest members of the Conservatory’s voice department, exhibiting yet again their commitment to a strong musical and physical performance.