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Conductor Nicole Paiement on the Surreal World of Weill and Poulenc

Francis Poulenc’s opera, Les mamelles de Tirésias, takes the status quo and turns it on its head. It’s Looney Toons on mescalin and anything goes. It starts out with a guy waiting for his wife, Thérèse, to put dinner on the table, like always – when suddenly she starts-in with something about wanting to make war, not children! She’s going to be an actress, she says. Maybe run for Congress or, better, start keeping a famous ballerina on the side. Whatever – “He” (aka, Voice of the Husband) is no longer calling the shots. And off fly her breasts!

Courtesy of the artist

This week, for three performances only, April 25–27, Opera Parallèle presents Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s 1927 Mahagonny Songspiel in a deviceful pairing with Poulenc’s 1947 gender-bending opera buffa. The production is conducted by the company’s artistic director, Nicole Paiement, stage direction and designs are by Brian Staufenbiel. Performances take place at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater.

“Thérèse will be in a suit that’s inflated,” said Nicole. “The breasts will deflate with the body as she becomes a man. Poulenc is one of the master composers of opera at the beginning of the 20th Century. He was associated with a group called Le Six [the other five being Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Fermaine Tailleferre, Georges Auric] and Jean Cocteau was their kind-of leader. He wrote a manifesto of the sort of music they wanted to write – music that would be closer to the people, that would relate to a larger part of society. Music that would be closer to the people, that would relate to a larger part of society. That kind of aesthetic has always interested me. Poulenc has an artistry with words. He understands poetry and text very well. I’ve wanted to do this piece for the longest time.”

The performance begins with Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel – the first of its six songs, “Moon of Alabama” (or, “Alabama Song” ) having been a signature piece for Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya who recorded it in 1930 and sang it throughout her career. The song was covered by a long list of recording artists, including Bette Midler, Marilyn Manson, Ute Lemper, Max Raabe, and Radical Faerie member Justin Vivian Bond. Each verse ends with, “I tell you we must die.” If the character cannot find the next whisky bar, the next pretty girl (or boy), or the next dollar, “I tell you we must die.”

“It’s not true opera,” says Nicole. “It was a dramatic piece that was put together with Brecht in preparation of what became The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. It was the first collaboration of Brecht and Weill. It was meant to be a dramatic staged piece. It has an underlying story to the six movements. Basically, there are six songs. Between each song is an instrumental interlude that brings you somewhere else. These interludes date from an earlier period and are more atonal. The songs are the first aria-songs that Kurt Weill ever wrote. He was developing his lyrical style with this piece. It shows how natural it all was for him. These are great melodies, but there’s no development of the characters as you would have in an opera. We’re using it as a prelude to the Mamelles. We’re combining both of these works. After the Poulenc, we go back to the Weill and close the production with a retrograde version – the subject matter being that materialism has taken over and that people are looking for Utopia.”

“See incomparable ardor born from change of sex!” yells a newspaper hawker. Since Thérèse became Tirésias and her husband a woman – at least, dressed as a woman and admired by the local gendarme – he has given birth to 40,049 children. He claims his happiness is now complete. When asked by a journalist how such a thing could have happened, the husband answers, “Will-power, sir, leads us to everything.”

“We’re putting the production into the 21st Century,” says Nicole. “What we’re saying is that if the message in Poulenc were realized and people started having so many babies, then we would have over-population – which, right now, we truly have. With an over-populated earth, what would be Nirvana? What would we be searching for? Maybe we’d be searching for a basic natural resource – like water. Basically, at the beginning with the Weill, the story is that they are searching for Nirvana, for a better place. What they are really searching for is water. They are traveling on a boat. They get into the desert, the boat opens up into a theatre – like a traveling theatre troupe. They perform this surreal play for these people they found in the desert. So, it becomes an über story that we’ve put over these two stories. At the Opéra-Comique, when they had a double bill, they would try to combine the pieces and do things with them. This goes into the aesthetic of having what they would call ‘the new spirit of opera’. Weill and Poulenc talk about it a lot. They wanted a spirit of being less stringent. We’re trying to bring that new spirit into these two works.”

So, does San Francisco have its own daring Opéra-Comique in Opera Parallele?

“No!” she laughed. “Though I really like doing light opera – and it’s an important part of an opera company’s success – we have to think very wisely about the repertoire. Every production we create brings in new people. Hopefully, they’ll like what we do. If they don’t like the next production or composer quite as much, they might just come because they like the company. We are a young company. It’s not often that we do comic opera. But I think that the spirit of this production is very much of the Opéra-Comique and in this moment – we definitely are. Opera Parallele has a mission of bringing opera into the 21st Century. There are these works that lay in-between new music and old music that are not performed very often. They are the link to understanding the language of today. Also, this season, we are focusing on operas that intersect with social issues. Our opera in June, Anya17, deals with human trafficking. When you look at the Poulenc – which was based on a play from 1903 by Apollinaire – the issues that he was dealing with then are the same issues we’re dealing with today, such as gender issues and overpopulation. It’s being put in a funny, light-hearted way. The biggest reason we chose this is that the music is exquisite.”

Click here for more information on Opera Parallèle and the American premiere of Adam Gorb’s ANYA17.

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