Charity opera bares all

Deborah Grayson 21 October 2007

The term ‘surreal’ first appeared in Apollinaire’s introduction to his 1917 play The Breasts of Tiresias (Les Mamelles de Tirésias) – a ridiculous farce that he was so insecure about presenting to the establishment he claimed to have written it fifteen years earlier, in the hope he could pass off any objections as youthful naiveties.

Francis Poulenc set the work as an opera in the 1940s, relocating the action from the African island of Zanzibar to ‘Zanzibar, a town on the French Riviera near Monte Carlo’ – a place ‘quite tropical enough’, he said, ‘for the Parisian I am’. It is this opera which is receiving two performances in Great St Mary’s Church on Thursday 18 th and Friday 19th of October, in aid of Breast Cancer Campaign.

The bizarre plot revolves around a young woman called ‘Thérèse’, who tires of her husband’s misogyny and removes her breasts, which appear as two balloons. Popping them, she becomes the male ‘Tirésias’, growing a beard and running off to join the army. Her husband then decides to make babies by himself, creating 40,049 of them in one day, who all appear as fully grown adults who are highly successful in the arts. Eventually ‘Thérèse’ reappears, her husband gives her back her breasts, and everybody sings ‘make babies, not war’!

Along the way there are a series of ridiculous gender-bending moments – the husband in a negligee being felt up by a passing gendarme, for example – as well as a fantastically amoral finale which basically encourages rampant sex between all and sundry. (‘Scratch if you’ve got an itch / go for white or go for black / it’s much more fun when it changes!’ the cast and chorus sing gleefully…)

Opera is often seen as the most inaccessible of genres, which is a shame because compared to most art music there is a lot to engage with – the theatrical elements of characters, plot and action should make it far more comprehensible for non-musicians than the abstraction of a symphony, for example. This disjuncture is partly down to companies doing the wrong operas – Handel’s endlessly repetitive arias may have an established fan base but they’re not going to have new listeners pinned to their seats – and partly down to an attitude on the part of practitioners that opera is fundamentally something ghfalutin, to the point where entertainment value goes out of the window.

The biggest challenge with opera is not to the fight to make it high brow enough – art music contains so much structural complexity that that can be taken as read – but the fight to engage an audience, particularly those members of it not so immersed in its musical language. Poulenc’s score for ‘The Breasts of Tiresias’ is in fact incredibly accessible as it is, full of catchy tunes and set pieces that delight in their own ridiculousness, and the intention of the whole production is to bring a sense of fun and mischief to a genre that is too often associated with being difficult and long-winded.

Given the importance of audience engagement it may seem surprising that we have chosen to do our production in French, but it genuinely makes less sense in English. Apollinaire is untranslatable at the best of times (there’s a reason we had to naturalise the term ‘surreal’ rather than coin our own) and when being sung the task is nigh on impossible. A half-hearted English libretto would just get in the way, while a side-by-side translation for the audience to peruse at their leisure will leave room for the staging to interpret the absurdity and playfulness of the text.

At only an hour long, ‘The Breasts of Tiresias’ packs in more fun per minute than any other opera, and has as much to offer a newcomer to the genre as a long established aficionado. We hope many of you will come to join in the fun, and to help raise money for a very worthy cause.

Deborah Grayson