Obituary: Conrad Susa / Composed five operas and works for theater

April 26, 1935 - Nov. 21, 2013

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Conrad Susa, a composer for the voice, for the theater and for the operatic stage, where voice and theater converge, died Thursday at his home in San Francisco. He was 78.

Mr. Susa, a native of Springdale who spent his young adult years in Pittsburgh, had been in declining health for some time and died in his sleep, said his executor, composer Byron Adams.

At his death, Mr. Susa was a professor of composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he had taught since 1988. He was formerly the composer in residence at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, a post he held from 1959 to 1994.

Of the five operas Mr. Susa wrote, perhaps the most widely performed is his first, "Transformations," based on a cycle of poems by Anne Sexton that reimagines Grimm's fairy tales. A chamber opera, "Transformations," received its premiere at the Minnesota Opera in 1973 and has since been produced throughout the country, including at the Spoleto Festival USA, in Charleston, S.C., and the Manhattan Theater Club.

Mr. Susa was also well known for "The Dangerous Liaisons." That opera, with a libretto by Philip Littell, was based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's 18th-century novel chronicling the erotic machinations of the French aristocracy.

Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, "The Dangerous Liaisons" was first performed there in 1994 with a cast that included Thomas Hampson, Frederica von Stade and Renee Fleming. The production was broadcast on the PBS program "Great Performances" that year.

"That made a lot of noise at the time," said Don Wilkins, professor emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University, who knew Mr. Susa through Pittsburgh's music scene.

Mr. Susa's work, tonal and melodic, ranged across a spate of styles; a single composition might incorporate aspects of Baroque music, tango and jazz. While some reviewers appeared discomforted by his eclecticism, many others praised his lyricism and lush sonorities.

Conrad Stephen Susa was born on April 26, 1935, in Springdale. He received a bachelor's degree in music from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and was later a staff pianist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 1957 to 1958 . At the Juilliard School, from which he earned a master's degree, he studied composition with William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti.

For the Old Globe, Mr. Susa composed more than 200 suites of incidental music, notably for Shakespearean works. In the 1960s and '70s, he also wrote music to accompany many Broadway plays, including a 1968 revival of Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard," directed by Eva Le Gallienne and starring Uta Hagen and Donald Moffat, and a 1977 production of Shaw's "Caesar and Cleopatra," directed by Ellis Rabb and starring Rex Harrison and Elizabeth Ashley.

Mr. Susa also worked as a dramaturge for the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn.

Post-Gazette staff writer Elizabeth Bloom contributed.


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