One Farce, One Satire...All Silly: Two Comic Operas Land in Oberlin

October 19, 2016

Julie Anna Gulenko

Oberlin Opera Theater presents Viva la Mamma and Les Mamelles de Tirésias
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Oberlin Opera Theater cuts through the tension and turpitude of campaign season with a double bill of comedies leading up to Election Day: Gaetano Donizetti’s Viva la Mamma and Francis Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Each show serves up an appetizing dose of humor and drama, and will be presented in four performances November 2 through 6 at Oberlin College’s Hall Auditorium.

Both operas feature the conservatory’s outstanding student singers with orchestral accompaniment by the Oberlin Orchestra, under the direction of Raphael Jiménez.

“The evening is one that will lift people's spirits,” says longtime Oberlin Opera Theater director Jonathon Field. “And we need that this season!” The seldom-performed operas are linked by their outrageous humor and themes addressing gender roles and reversals. The similarities end there, however, as Field fittingly labels the Italian work "a hearty and robust bowl of spaghetti with sauce” and the French piece a light and fluffy “soufflé.”

Whimsical and silly to its core, the farcical Viva la Mamma is an "opera within an opera" that opens on a cut-rate company limping through a rehearsal. The prima donna refuses to take direction, the tenor can barely perform his role, and the director is pulling his hair out in frustration. Must the show go on? You’ll have to wait and see!

In the opera bouffe Les Mamelles de Tirésias, young Poulenc's lighthearted and nonsensical humor bookends the wartime messages of gender roles and feminism. Weary of her mundane life as a housewife, Therése transforms herself into a man and marches off to conquer the world as General Tirésias, leaving her husband at home to tend to the babies…lots and lots of babies. 

Written 120 years apart, both operas offer a smorgasbord of flavors and textures. Donizetti’s Mamma is full of Italianate entertainment—vocal fireworks and beautiful melodies—while Poulenc’s Les Mamelles offers a pastiche of brassy textures, wonky progressions, and gorgeous melodic lines. Perhaps even more fascinating is Poulenc’s ability to suspend the audience in a full hour of dreamlike whimsy: Everything about the music goes against nature, as moments of frenzied suspense are met with unnaturally slow tempi. Les Mamelles merges dreams and real life into a surrealist piece that struck a chord with the war-wearied French populous of 1947.

Both operas will be sung in English, with English supertitles.

LAUGH ALONG WITH US: Oberlin Opera Theater’s production of Viva la Mamma and Les Mamelles de Tirésias opens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, November 2, and continues through the weekend with 8 p.m. shows Friday and Saturday, November 4 and 5, and a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, November 6.

Tickets are $10—just $8 for all students—and are available by calling 800-371-0178, online at, or by visiting Oberlin’s Central Ticket Service at Hall Auditorium weekdays from noon-5 p.m.

For more information about the arts at Oberlin, please visit our online arts guide.

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