Conrad Susa dies at 78; prolific composer of stage music

Conrad Susa wrote choral works, operas and music for the Old Globe theater in San Diego
(Old Globe)

Conrad Susa, a prolific composer for voice and stage whose works include the widely produced 1973 opera “Transformations,” based on poet Anne Sexton’s retelling of Grimm’s fairy tales, has died at his home in San Francisco. He was 78.

Susa died in his sleep Thursday after a long period of decline following a serious fall, said Byron Adams, a UC Riverside musicologist who is an executor of Susa’s estate.

A longtime professor of composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Susa wrote five operas, including “The Dangerous Liaisons,” based on the 18th century French epistolary tale of erotic scheming by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

His musical language was polyglot in its inspirations —"Transformations,” for example, draws from Bach, Samuel Barber and the bossa nova, among other influences — but Susa wove them together into his own distinctive sound.


“He was in a way the first postmodern composer,” Adams said Monday. “He would select from various types of genres anything he needed to be expressive.”

Known for his tendency to write and rewrite nearly to curtain time, Susa said composing operas was not for the faint of heart.

“I myself can only do it every five years,” he told The Times in 1994, when “Liaisons” received its world premiere at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, starring Frederica von Stade, Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson. “It takes that long to forget how truly hair-raising it can be.”

A versatile Shakespearean, Susa also wrote more than 200 theater scores during a career that included 35 years as resident composer for San Diego’s Old Globe Theater.


As a choral composer, he was known for numerous works that have become standard fare in holiday concerts, including “A Christmas Garland” and “Carols and Lullabies.”

His most popular and enduring work, however, was “Transformations,” which was a turning point for Susa as much as it was for Sexton, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and feminist who killed herself in 1974.

Susa, who was born April 26, 1935, in Springdale, Pa., studied composition at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh and the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where he earned a master’s degree in 1961. He soon was working off-Broadway for productions of Ellis Rabb’s Assn. of Producing Artists.

While in New York, he won a number of honors, including the George Gershwin Memorial Scholarship. But in 1972, when he was commissioned by the Minnesota Opera to write “Transformations,” the openly gay composer decided to move to San Francisco.


He intended only a short stay but wound up remaining in the city because of the freedom it offered to explore “the right kind of wildness, as far as I was concerned,” he said this year in an oral history for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

“So I left New York to compose ‘Transformations,’ but the change was already beginning in me, and ‘Transformations’ was a product of it.”

The opera, performed chamber-style by eight singers and eight musicians, was based on Sexton’s 1971 collection “Transformations” which used fairy tales to explore various aspects of womanhood and the conflicts that personally tormented her.

Susa chose the poems for the libretto and set the opera in a mental hospital, with Sexton as the narrator. On opening night, the poet sat with Susa in the front row and, according to Sexton biographer Diane Wood Middlebrook, shouted to him during intermission, “Conrad, you’re a genius!”


It became one of the most frequently produced operas by an American composer.

Andrew Porter, in a review for the New Yorker, wrote that “Transformations” was “one of the brightest and best of recent American operas.… Susa’s score is economical, intelligent, witty and alert.”

Susa spent more than a decade’s worth of summers at the Old Globe before “Transformations” launched his new career composing operas. He started at the Old Globe in 1959, when he not only composed music but ran the sound system. Although scoring the backdrop for Shakespeare was often seen as incidental to the acting, Susa said he was inspired to create music that serves as “part of the unconscious world of the play.”

He regarded Shakespeare as “a great employer” who offered opportunities he could never find in real life.


“I get to bring on a king or two, I get to provide music for his coronation, send a lot of troops into battles, create the weather. I’ve sunk a few ships, I’ve helped precipitate some rebellions. If I wrote music just to express things in my life,” he told The Times in 1988, “I wouldn’t have that range.”

He is survived by two brothers, Lawrence and Dennis, and nieces and nephews.