In honor of National Opera Week (Oct. 27 – Nov. 5), E. C. Schirmer explores the creative process behind writing and producing new opera. Join us as we commemorate the creativity, diligence, and hard work of the composers, librettists, and producers who bring those operas to life.
Conrad Susa (1935-2013) was resident composer for the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and served as dramaturge for the O’Neill Center in Connecticut. He also wrote numerous scores for documentary films and PBS television productions, choral and instrumental works and operas (Transformations, Black River, and The Love of Don Perlimplín) commissioned by the Minnesota Opera Company, San Francisco Opera and Pepsico. His church opera The Wise Women, was written for the American Guild of Organists and The Dangerous Liaisons, for the San Francisco Opera. He won numerous awards, including Ford Foundation fellowships, National Endowment for the Arts grants and a National Endowment Consortium grant. He earned a B.F.A. from Carnegie Institute of Technology and received an M.S. from The Juilliard School, where he studied with William Bergsma, Vincent Persichetti, and P.D.Q. Bach.
Answers by David Conte.
Did Conrad have any words of advice that he gave his students about opera?
Conrad’s advice to aspiring opera composers: “Writing an opera is like sewing a quilt and building a monument at the same time.” I believe that this was his way of saying that the opera composer has to keep track of both the smallest details and the largest structural matters.
Are there noticeable differences in how Conrad wrote new opera from his earlier works to his later? If so, what were they?
With each of his five successive operas, Conrad Susa expanded and refocused his energies. The first, Transformations, he called an entertainment for 8 singers and 8 players, rather than an opera. Black River is the most ambitious, and in my experience the closest any American opera composer has come to the scale and depth of Wagner, whom Conrad greatly admired, along with Britten and Janacek, among others. The Love of Don Perlimplin is for me the most perfect of his operas; he was at “the top of his game” in building the dramatic arc, and especially in the orchestration, which in all Conrad’s operas is always giving the audience important information, and clarifying, deepening, and advancing the plot. (This is one of the major differences between operas and musicals.) The Wise Women, Conrad’s only church opera, may be the most unique, based on an original idea by Conrad and librettist Philip Littell that on the night of Christ’s birth, Christ appears to the wives of the Three Wise Men. The Dangerous Liaisons has a harrowing intensity, and was the most challenging and difficult for Conrad to compose. The libretto by Philip Littell is for me one of the finest librettos ever written in English.
For more information about Conrad Susa and his catalogue, click here.