Opera for Major Life Changes: Les mamelles de Tirésias
I will shortly be beginning a new job, and in seeking out a thematically appropriate opera, was struck by how few operas deal with the question of work and vocation. I suppose this is a function of many opera plots featuring characters who are either divine beings or members of the nobility – none of whom “work for a living” in the usual sense.
Here is one of the exceptions, although its concern with “jobs” is rather oblique: Poulenc’s surrealist opera Les mamelles de Tirésias (English translation: The Breasts of Tiresias), a short, goofy opera dealing with gender politics and birth rate panic. The opera is partially a satirical response to alarm at falling birth rates in early 20th-century France, as well as the changing role of women in society. The principal character, Thérèse, is unsatisfied with her feminine role and announces early in the opera that she is a feminist. She rattles off a litany of male occupations that sound much more appealing than cooking and childbearing, then promptly dispenses with her breasts (represented by two balloons that she removes from her bodice) and becomes male. Later in the opera, her husband decides that he must make up for his wife’s unwillingness to bear children by having some of his own – and by the following day he’s given birth to over forty thousand of them.
It’s tempting to read the opera as attempting to subvert traditional gender roles, and that likely accounts for much of its renewed popularity – but it seems just as likely that it’s an attempt to point out what 1930’s traditionalists would have seen as the absurdity of the feminist project. I certainly prefer to see it as both silly and subversive, especially since the music has a tuneful vaudevillian lean and showcases Poulenc at his most hedonistic.
Here’s a YouTube performance from the Liceu Barcelona of Thérèse/Tiresias transition from female to male (nudity warning!). The sound quality is rather poor but the performance is exuberant. The 1999 Barbara Bonney recording is a staple of my listening.