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The Breasts of Tiresias / Tears of a Knife

Francis Poulenc / Bohuslav Martinu

Opera in 2 Acts / Opera in 1 Act

All expectations are confounded in these two nonsensical comic operas. Written in Paris, during surrealism’s Golden Age, these absurdist delights unfold amid storylines that are as entertaining as they are strange. Poulenc and Martinu’s worlds allow breasts to fly off of women’s bodies over bright, melodious tunes, men to manufacture 40,049 babies in a single day, Satan to fox-trot over a 1920s jazz score and suicides to be undone without bodily consequence. The result will be an evening of spectacular nonsense and fun,  where nothing makes sense and the bizarre is king.

The Breasts of Tiresias

Les mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias) is a surrealist two-act opéra bouffe based on the play of the same title by Guillaume Apollinaire, which was written in 1903 but first performed in 1917. The opera premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on June 3, 1947.
Poulenc first thought of setting the opera in the 1930s, and began composition in 1939, finishing in 1944. He altered the setting from the real African island of Zanzibar to an imaginary town called Zanzibar near Monte Carlo (Apollinaire's childhood home) on the French Riviera. This latitude, he said, was "quite tropical enough for the Parisian that I am."

Tears of a Knife

Bohuslav Martinu's one-act opera Slzy noze, better known by the French title Les larmes du couteau (Tears of a Knife; 1928), was written during a period when jazz exerted a powerful influence upon European music, and upon opera in particular. Joining the company of such jazz-inflected stage works as Ernst Krenek's Jonny spielt auf (1927) and Emmerich Kálmán's Die Herzogen von Chicago (The Countess of Chicago; 1928), Martinu's opera makes abundant use of the distinctive rhythms, harmonies, and instruments of popular dance music. The bizarre, darkly parodistic scenario, by the French poet Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, includes multiple appearances by Satan, in guises both innocuous (as a bicyclist) and morbid (as a hanged man).
The premiere at the 1928 contemporary music festival at BadenBaden did not materialize due to reseIvations about the text, which shocked even avant-garde oriented members of the jury (including Hindemith). For the same reason the opera was also turned down by the Vienna publishers, Universal-Edition. It was premiered only in 1969, as is the case with a number of Martinu's works for the stage, Les larmes du couteau wasn't premiered for decades after its composition; it finally saw the light of day in a production in Brno in 1968.

Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963)

Francis Poulenc was in many ways the most "typical" of the group of French composers known as Les Six (also included Milhaud, Auric, Durey, Honegger and Tailleferre), and he represents a trend of 20th-century music that is characteristically French. Poulenc was born in Paris to a family that was artistic, musical, and affluent. His mother was a fine pianist, and Francis began lessons at the age of 5. Later he studied with Ricardo Vines, a friend of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel who had played the first performances of much of their piano music. While still in his teens Poulenc met Erik Satie, who left a permanent mark on his musical ideals.

When Poulenc was 18, he wrote Rapsodie nègre baritone, string quartet, flute, and clarinet. Its lighthearted irreverence and music-hall atmosphere established his right to be a charter member of Les Six when the group was formed a few years later. He spent most of his life in Paris, except for concert tours that included several trips to the United States after World War II, where he accompanied baritone Pierre Bernac, who specialized in singing his songs.

Poulenc's operas differ strikingly from each other. Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1944) is a risqué, surrealist farce; Les Dialogues des Carmélites (1957) is a serious and moving account of the spiritual development of a nun during the French Revolution and La Voix Humaine (1959) is a deeply harrowing, unremitting monologue, featuring an abandoned lover painfully breaking down over the telephone. His religious choral works, particularly the Litanies à la Vierge noire (1936) and a Stabat Mater (1950), are frequently performed. He also wrote numerous piano solos, a sonata for two pianos, and concertos for piano, two pianos, organ, and harpsichord. Among chamber works there are sonatas for various instruments and piano and a sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn. Poulenc avoided large, dramatic gestures. He accepted his natural limitations and was content to write music in the spirit of the composers he most admired: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Frédéric Chopin, Debussy, and Igor Stravinsky.

Bohuslav Martinu (1890– 1959)

Along with Leos Janacek, Bohuslav Martinu was one of the twin giants of Czech music in the twentieth century, a composer with a distinctly individual voice and a versatility that led him to excel in every medium from stage works to symphonies to string quartets. Martinu was born in the Moravian town of Policka. Starting violin lessons at the age of seven, he gave his first recital when he was 15. By the age of 10 he had written his first compositions; his juvenilia include songs, piano music, symphonic poems, string quartets, and ballets. In 1906, he entered Prague Conservatory, but reading and the theater diverted Martinu from his studies, and he was finally expelled for "incorrigible negligence" in 1910. However, he continued composing. Exempted, as a teacher, from military service, Martinu produced many works during the World War I. Returning to the Conservatory, he studied composition Josef Suk, later working in Paris with Albert Roussel, whose muscular, rhythmically vigorous music eventually influenced Martinu's own.

Martinu's music was well received in postwar Paris. Like many of his contemporaries, Martinu absorbed the influence of jazz, as evidenced in such works as the ballet La revue de cuisine (1927), which also incorporates South American rhythms, and the one-act opera Les larmes du couteau ( Tears of a Knife; 1928). In 1930, Martinu's constant desire to learn more led him to the music of Corelli, Vivaldi, and Bach, signaling a new concern with rhythmic continuity and contrapuntal technique.

Following the resounding success of his opera Juliette in Prague in 1938, World War II forced Martinu to flee his adopted home of Paris. After spending nine miserable months in the south of France, the composer and his wife made their way to Spain, and then to America, in the early months of 1941. For the duration of the war, Martinu lived in various cities in the Eastern United States, surviving on commissions and producing five symphonies by 1946. After Czechoslovakia fell to the communists in 1949, it gradually became clear to Martinu that he was no longer welcome in his native land, a source of great pain to him. Martinu became an American citizen but spent much time in Europe; in 1953-1955 he was based in Nice and in 1955-1956 he was teaching at the American Academy in Rome. After a final New York sojourn he took up residence as the guest of Paul Sacher in Liestal, Switzerland, where he died in 1959. Harry Halbreich's catalog of Martinu's music, to which the composer did not assign opus numbers, lists nearly 400 compositions. Well established in the repertoire, Martinu's best works confirm Martinu's status as an important twentieth century composer. (by Michael Rodma)


The word surrealist was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire and first appeared in the preface to his play Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias), which was first performed in 1917.
World War I scattered the writers and artists who had been based in Paris, and in the interim many became involved with Dada, believing that excessive rational thought and bourgeois values had brought the conflict of the war upon the world. The Dadaists protested with anti-art gatherings, performances, writings and art works. After the war, when they returned to Paris, the Dada activities continued.
During the war, André Breton, who had trained in medicine and psychiatry, served in a neurological hospital where he used Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic methods with soldiers suffering from shell-shock. Meeting the young writer Jacques Vaché, Breton felt that Vaché was the spiritual son of writer and pataphysics founder Alfred Jarry. He admired the young writer's anti-social attitude and disdain for established artistic tradition. Later Breton wrote, "In literature, I was successively taken with Rimbaud, with Jarry, with Apollinaire, with Nouveau, with Lautréamont, but it is Jacques Vaché to whom I owe the most."
Back in Paris, Breton joined in Dada activities and started the literary journal Littérature along with Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault. They began experimenting with automatic writing—spontaneously writing without censoring their thoughts—and published the writings, as well as accounts of dreams, in the magazine. Breton and Soupault delved deeper into automatism and wrote The Magnetic Fields (1920).
Continuing to write, they attracted more artists and writers; they came to believe that automatism was a better tactic for societal change than the Dada attack on prevailing values. The group grew to include Paul Éluard, Benjamin Péret, René Crevel, Robert Desnos, Jacques Baron, Max Morise,Pierre Naville, Roger Vitrac, Gala Éluard, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Man Ray, Hans Arp, Georges Malkine, Michel Leiris, Georges Limbour, Antonin Artaud, Raymond Queneau, André Masson, Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Prévert, and Yves Tanguy.

Surrealist theatre

The word surrealist was first used by Guillaume Apollinaire to describe his 1917 play Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias), which was later adapted into an opera by Francis Poulenc.
Antonin Artaud, an early Surrealist, rejected the majority of Western theatre as a perversion of its original intent, which he felt should be a mystical, metaphysical experience. He thought that rational discourse comprised "falsehood and illusion." Theorising a new theatrical form that would be immediate and direct, that would link the unconscious minds of performers and spectators in a sort of ritual event, Artaud created the Theatre of Cruelty, in which emotions, feelings, and the metaphysical were expressed not through language but physically, creating a mythological, archetypal, allegorical vision, closely related to the world of dreams.
The other major theatre practitioner to have experimented with surrealism in the theatre is the Spanish playwright and director Federico García Lorca, particularly in his plays The Public (1930), When Five Years Pass (1931), and Play Without a Title (1935). Other surrealist plays include Aragon's Backs to the Wall (1925) and Roger Vitrac's The Mysteries of Love (1927) and Victor, or The Children Take Over (1928). Gertrude Stein's opera Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (1938) has also been described as "American Surrealism," though it is also related to a theatrical form of cubism.

Surrealist music

In the 1920s several composers were influenced by Surrealism, or by individuals in the Surrealist movement. Among them were Bohuslav Martinu, Francis Poulenc, André Souris, and Edgard Varèse, who stated that his work Arcana was drawn from a dream sequence. Souris in particular was associated with the movement: he had a long relationship with Magritte, and worked on Paul Nouge's publication Adieu Marie.
Germaine Tailleferre of the French group Les Six wrote several works which could be considered to be inspired by Surrealism, including the 1948 Ballet Paris-Magie (scenario by Lise Deharme), the Operas La Petite Sirène (book by Philippe Soupault) and Le Maître (book by Eugène Ionesco). Tailleferre also wrote popular songs to texts by Claude Marci, the wife of Henri Jeanson, whose portrait had been painted by Magritte in the 1930s.
Even though Breton by 1946 responded rather negatively to the subject of music with his essay Silence is Golden, later Surrealists, such as Paul Garon, have been interested in—and found parallels to—Surrealism in the improvisation of jazz and the blues. Jazz and blues musicians have occasionally reciprocated this interest. For example, the 1976 World Surrealist Exhibition included performances by "Honeyboy" Edwards.
The early works of musique concrete by Pierre Schaeffer have a Surrealist quality derived from the unexpected juxtaposition of sound objects. This quality was alluded to by the composer Olivier Messiaen when he referred to Schaeffer's "surrealist anxiety".

The Breasts of Tiresias

Act 1
Thérèse tires of her life as a submissive woman and becomes the male Tirésias when her breasts turn into balloons and float away. Her husband is not pleased by this, still less so when she ties him up and dresses him as a woman.

Meanwhile, a pair of drunken gamblers called Presto and Lacouf affectionately shoot one another and are mourned by the assembled townspeople. Thérèse marches off to conquer the world as General Tiresias, leaving her captive husband to the attentions of the local gendarme, who is fooled by his female attire.

Off-stage, General Tiresias starts a successful campaign against childbirth and is hailed by the populace. Fearful that France will be left sterile if women give up sex, the husband vows to find a way to bear children without women. Lacouf and Presto return from the dead and express both interest and scepticism.

Act 2
The curtain rises to cries of "Papa!" The husband's project has been a spectacular success, and he has given birth to 40,049 children in a single day. A visiting Parisian journalist asks how he can afford to feed the brood, but the husband explains that the children have all been very successful in careers in the arts, and have made him a rich man with their earnings. After chasing the journalist off, the husband decides to raise a journalist of his own, but is not completely pleased with the results.

The gendarme now arrives to report that, because of overpopulation, the citizens of Zanzibar are all dying of hunger. The husband suggests getting ration cards printed by a tarot-reading fortune-teller. Just such a fortune-teller immediately appears, looking rather familiar under her mask.

The fortune-teller prophesies that the fertile husband will be a multi-millionaire, but that the sterile gendarme will die in abject poverty. Incensed, the gendarme attempts to arrest her, but she strangles him and reveals herself as none other than Thérèse. The couple reconcile, and the whole cast gathers at the footlights to urge the audience: Heed, o Frenchmen, the lessons of the warAnd make babies, you who hardly ever make them! Dear audience: Make babies!

Tears of a Knife

Eleonora, the young heroine, falls in love with a hanged man ("I have always dreamed of a hanged man"), and is frustrated by his indifference to her feelings. Only the fact of her suicide convinces her beloved of the true depth of her love, an awareness that brings him back to life.