For people who automatically associate opera with stories of love, death, mythological melodrama about the cosmos, and robust Wagnerian sopranos, Lawrence’s opera production this year will surely surprise. The work, Francis Poulenc’s La Mamelles de Tirsias [The Breasts of Tirsias] of 1947, deliberately tries to defy anything you have ever seen. At least, anything you’ve seen in your waking life.Expect to see a spectacle with singers sailing over the stage on scooters, women turning into men and vice versa, men dying and coming back to life, machines that mass-produce babies, and lots and lots of balloons. That is just a hint of all that goes on in this opera, and considering the work is just under an hour, it is action-packed.
The work, with a libretto taken from Apollinaire’s famous 1917 play of the same name (widely acknowledged as the first surrealist play), defies both logic and plot description. In a very comic way, it aims its humor at the absurdity of life.
La Mamelles includes an incredible assortment of events, mainly because there is great flexibility in surrealism.
The plot of the opera involves Thrse, a housewife who becomes bored with her life and spontaneously becomes a man. Eventually she/he, now called Tirsias, leaves home for a new career, and deserts her/his husband. The husband feels that wealth rests in children, and creates a baby-producing machine that produces 40,049 babies in a single day. At that point, Tirsias returns dissatisfied with life as a man and turns back into a woman.
According to Associate Professor of Theatre Arts Timothy X. Troy, the work seeks “to recognize the truth of our inner lives, our fantasy.” What’s more, he says, the piece is “serious about fun,” and confronts the mechanization of modern times by lifting up imagination over rationalism. In creating the set design, Troy and Associate Professor of Theatre Arts Richmond Frielund used as their main influences a children’s TV show from the 1950’s and 60’s called “Romper Room,” and an imagined Paris as seen through the eyes of the Warner Bros. cartoon character Pepe Le Pew.
Poulenc’s music serves to unify the elements. Assistant Professor of Music Bonnie Koestner describes Poulenc’s music as constantly teetering between the church and the cabaret. This duality gives it a chameleon-like quality. When seen with the action on stage, it blends perfectly with the absurd elements of the story. Associate professor of music Bridget-Michaele Reischl, who is conducting the pit orchestra, notes that Poulenc’s “orchestration is really good at creating the humor on stage.” However, the music taken on its own can sound like it belongs to some reverently beautiful storyline. The vocalists, after hearing the piece without knowing the story, were a bit shocked to find out otherwise.
Genevieve Tokarski, who sings the character of Thrse, says that the part is “surreal, which has been a challenge, just trying to make sense of it… It’s a lot of fun, though. It’s the first comic role I’ve ever had to portray. It’s easy to portray dark emotions, but it’s a lot harder to be funny.”
Koestner praised the cast for their embracing of the roles and the absurdity of the humor. “To be able to cast [this opera] with a double cast, and to cast it well at the undergraduate level is outstanding,” she said, noting also that the production was benefited by a wonderful rehearsal pianist in Abby Birling. (Koestner fulfilled that role when Lawrence last performed this, in 1970.)