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A Defiantly Comedic Opera Double Bill

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Juilliard Opera will present a double bill of Poulenc’s 1945 Les mamelles de Tirésias and Viktor Ullmann’s 1944 Der Kaiser von Atlantis in November. Director Ted Huffman explains the logic behind the pairing.

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I suggested the idea of doing these two pieces together after thinking about the fact that they are both satirical responses to World War II. Although written in very different circumstances, the two operas address the subject of war’s devastating effects in a profound but also humorous way for their respective audiences. In both pieces, there is a central question: Where do we, as humanity, go from here? How do we pick up the pieces after such destruction? Neither one allows itself to delve into pathos. Both operas are fiercely, defiantly comedic in the face of brutality and totalitarianism, which is the thing I love most about them.

I’ve directed both of these shows before, but never together as a double bill. The structural, stylistic, and even thematic similarities are astounding when you compare them side-by-side. Both pieces present a story within a story introduced by a narrator. In each opera, extreme circumstances lead one of the characters to take a drastic action that affects the entire population. Stylistically, the librettos are both episodic and contain prominent elements of the surreal and fantastical. We are never asked to suspend our disbelief and to think that these are “real” people in “real” circumstances. Instead, the audience is asked from the beginning to accept that these are pieces of theater and therefore can follow their own logic.

Mamelles, based on a play by Gulliaume Apollinaire, tells the story of Thérèse/Tirésias, a woman who is fed up with being told what she can and cannot do, so she decides to become a man. Her husband then figures out how to bear children himself. The story, along with Poulenc’s effervescent score, is irreverent and campy, skewering French society and its notions of gender roles. It presents a “morality tale” about the need for procreation through a queer lens; gender norms quickly unravel and a new, more diverse world order is suggested.

Kaiser is equally radical. Composed in the Czech concentration camp Theresienstadt (or Terezin), it presents a thinly veiled allegory about the rise of the Third Reich and condemns the Emperor (a cipher for Adolf Hitler) for the unfathomable evil he has brought about with his “total war.” The piece was never performed in the camp—its creators, Petr Kien and Viktor Ullmann, both died in Auschwitz—but it is an incredible document of bravery as well as a stunning artistic achievement.

These operas share, at their core, the idea that we need to use theater to look for new ways of imagining our world and that the old models of society don’t work any longer. I’m excited to work with the students of Juilliard Opera as they inhabit the work of these extraordinary writers and composers.

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