by Mike Telin
Farce and Surrealism will be center stage when Oberlin Opera Theater, Jonathon Field, director, presents a double-bill of Gaetano Donizetti’s satirical Viva la Mamma and Francis Poulenc’s outrageous Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Raphael Jiménez will conduct the student cast and the Oberlin Orchestra in performances beginning on Wednesday, November 2 at 8 pm in Hall Auditorium. The production continues through the weekend with 8 pm curtains on Friday and Saturday, November 4 and 5, and 2 pm on Sunday, November 6. Both operas will be sung in English, with English supertitles.
Is there a unifying theme between the two operas? “Sexual identity,” Jonathon Field said during a recent interview. “It is topical — is our identity determined by people who have knowledge of us, or is it determined by what we want it to be? The Poulenc certainly deals with that idea, and to a certain degree so does the Donizetti.”
Viva la Mamma takes place backstage at a small opera company in Rimini, Italy. There’s a temperamental diva, a goofball composer, an impoverished impresario, and a Russian tenor who doesn’t speak the language. “If you think that is implausible, I have actually been in those situations,” Field said.
The comedy unfolds when Mamma Agatha breaks into a rehearsal insisting that her daughter, the seconda donna, be given all of the best arias. When it is discovered that the impresario is broke, La Mamma says that she will rescue the production by pawning all of her jewelry, but only if she can have a role in the opera. The impresario agrees and she gets the part. “The opera was written in 1872 and the role of Mamma Agatha was intended to sung by a baritone, so it’s like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie.”
The production is set in the 1960s, and Field has drawn on Fellini films of that period and Martha Graham movement gestures for inspiration. “The challenge is to get it to play as a farce without impinging on the opera itself.”
Les mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias) is an opéra bouffe based on the play of the same title by Guillaume Apollinaire. Consisting of a prologue and two acts, the opera was written in 1945 and first performed in 1947. While the action is farcical, the opera delivers the serious message of repopulating a country ravaged by war.
The plot centers around Thérèse, a submissive wife who decides to take on the identity of General Tirésias when her breasts turn into balloons and float away. She also forces her husband to dress as a woman. Fearful that France will be left childless if women give up sex, the husband sets out on a mission to find a way to bear children without women. He does, and gives birth to 40,049 children in a single day. One thing leads to another and, in the end, everyone lives happily ever after. Musically, the opera is quintessential Poulenc with his characteristic use of pop and cabaret music.
Field noted that the poet and librettist Apollinaire, in writing program notes for Eric Satie’s ballet Parade, was the first person to use the word “surrealism” in print. “Surrealism is an art form where you take the representation of two ideas, and create a third idea that is above the realism that you have,” Field explained. “The challenge is finding the two ideas that you can put on stage that will represent that third level of reality, so you have to be selective.”
The biggest challenge Field faces with both operas is creating productions that will assure that audiences understand the satire. “If they don’t understand it then it’s my fault,” he said. “I have to be sure that everything communicates to a broad spectrum of the audience, so I try to put myself in the mind of someone who is seeing these operas for the very first time. The first 60 seconds are the most important, because that’s when I have to set up what the style is, set up some kind of engagement for what is going on, and lay the groundwork for the rest. Once I set up all of that, then I have to stay within those parameters.”
Published on ClevelandClassical.com October 31, 2016.
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