In Absurdist Operas, Field Reckons With Gender Roles


Photo Courtesy of Communications

The Oberlin Opera Theater in collaboration with The Oberlin Orchestra presents a double-billed production of Viva la mamma and Les Mamelles de Tirésias, two unconventional operas connected by their shared thematic exploration of gender roles and expression.

Samantha Spaccasi

Audiences can expect temperamental divas, babies coming out of ovens, stage moms and balloons from The Oberlin Opera Theater’s double-billed staging of Gaetano Donizetti’s Viva la mamma and Francis Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias. The shows provide an evening filled with farcical and absurdist humor that confronts and contrasts historical and modern perceptions of gender roles, playing today and tomorrow at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday. Both pieces will be performed in English.

The pairing of operas begins with Donizetti’s Viva la mamma. In the piece, a small-town Italian opera company’s attempt at a world premiere goes awry as the mother of the second soprano hijacks the performance. “Everything falls apart,” said Conservatory junior Vanessa Croome, who plays lead soprano in Donizetti’s opera.

Director and Associate Professor of Opera Theater Jonathan Field spoke to Viva la mamma’s uniqueness.

“Expect a backstage view of an opera production and eccentric characters that are only focused on themselves,” Field said. Perhaps the character that best fits that description is the titular Mamma — written for baritone, the role is alternately played by double-degree senior Jeremy Harr and Conservatory junior Cory McGee.

Field describes the character as the “prototypical stage mom.” Throughout the piece, the mother of the second soprano insists on giving all the best arias to her daughter. She becomes overly involved, eventually deciding that she wants to be in the show herself, which leads to a heated duet between herself and the lead soprano, played by Croome.

“It’s my favorite part of the whole show,” Croome said. “For the whole show, Mamma Agata has been trying to keep it together, and she just loses it. It gets very physical.”

The man-in-dress idea that connects Viva la mamma and Les Mamelles is one that carries with it significant social baggage, as men are represented playing women in farcical ways.

Harr, one of the actors playing Mamma, said that he considers this as he plays the role.

“It’s easy to oversimplify [Viva la mamma] as one big ‘man-in-dress’ joke, but the comedy really comes from the behavior of Mamma Agata and the other characters,” Harr wrote in an email to the Review. He acknowledged that at the time the opera was written, the idea of a man acting like a woman was considered ridiculous. “In a modern setting, however, we want to question traditional assumptions of gendered behavior,” he said.

Croome echoed Harr’s sentiment that the hilarity of the show comes from the characters’ behavior rather than the operas’ explorations of gender and gender roles becoming a punch line in themselves.

“It’s like [Viva la mamma] is being performed in Las Vegas,” Croome said, because the characters are “extreme caricatures” of performers. Croome plays the stereotypical prima donna, Corilla. “She thinks she’s very good, but she’s not. She’s really full of herself.”

Both Croome and conductor Raphael Jiménez emphasized Viva la mamma’s inherent humor, and they certainly got the laughter they expected in their first performance Wednesday night.

Following Viva la mamma is Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias, which Field described as “a very strange piece. … It’s more surrealist than the election.”

Les Mamelles was originally written as a play by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire circa World War I; Poulenc later set it to music at the end of the Second World War as a reaction to the destruction of France. The piece tells the story of a woman in Zanzibar who decides that she’s tired of putting up with her husband, and so grows a beard and transforms into a man, eventually setting out to conquer the world as a general. Her husband winds up turning into a woman in order to “make babies, which becomes a big bother,” Field said.

Though Les Mamelles is the only surrealist opera in existence, narrative surrealism is not the only thing that sets the piece apart. The piece touches on the pervasive postwar fear that women were disrupting the balance of power. Men — including Apollinaire — worried about women taking traditionally masculine roles. As such, the poet wrote the piece in response to the women’s rights movement.

In a modern day setting, though, Field sees an opportunity to subvert Apollinaire’s original motives and co-opt the piece to portray it from a feminist angle.

“As a feminist piece, it shows the ability and necessity of women to change in the last century,” Field wrote in an email to the Review. “The title character goes through several costume changes to give us an idea of the multiplicity of identities she wants to take on.”

Conservatory senior Olivia Boen, who plays the lead soprano Thérèsa/Tiresias in the Poulenc, would agree the Opera Theater’s representation subverts the original intentions of the piece into a more inclusive narrative, adding that a viewer would be unlikely to gain a comprehensive understanding of Les Mamelles de Tirésias based solely on its plot points.

“It’s best to just sit and absorb and enjoy the piece,” Boen said. “If you try to put the pieces of the plot together, it will be impossible to figure out. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Even though the music is challenging and the sets are elaborate, the team behind the double-bill has enjoyed the process of putting it all together, including the conductor.

“Even as we deal with the complexities of the music, we are having a great time because the stories are so fun. … [It is] a perfect evening in terms of the entertainment value and the quality of musical work,” Jimenez said.

Boen agreed, elaborating on the show’s musical side.

“The music is hard when you look at the page, but accessible when you hear it,” Boen said. “There [are] waltzes and even some French jazz.”

The performers have enjoyed taking a break from traditional operatic styles, as these two pieces focus less on the music and more on painting its broadly-drawn characters, who seem set to delight in unexpected ways.

“It’s important to keep an open mind,” Croome advised. “[The operas] will surprise people.”